Sola Isn’t the Point

It is my observation that a lot of misunderstanding over the doctrine, or more accurately the formula, of justification by faith alone, tend to obsessively focus on the formula itself rather than what the constellation of doctrines and propositions referred to by the formula. Thus there is of lot arguments over the term “alone” as if justification by faith alone could be inferred to be alone to the exclusion of Christ. It parallels the debates over “Sola Scriptura” as if Sola Scriptura or by the Scriptures alone is to be maintained against other fallible sources of knowledge or authority like reason or tradition.

On the Use of Aquinas and Pelagius

In aid of dispelling the misunderstanding over justification by faith alone this post shall outline the main features or propositions referred to by the formula of “Sola Fide” as given by Philip Melanchthon before proceeding to articulate the existence of these points, or at least something very strongly resembling them, in both Pelagius and Aquinas’s commentary on Romans.

Now eyebrows maybe justly raised at my intention to use Pelagius, the archenemy of Augustine, and one of the archeretics of the Church, as testimonial evidence for the beliefs of the Catholic Church, however I think there are several distinct advantages to this procedure:

The “Church Fathers” or major theologians of the past can either serve as “canonical authorities” on the correct teachings based on their status as approved or sanctioned “Doctors of the Church”, recognised to be gifted in wisdom, holiness of life, or skill in handling the Scriptures, to which Aquinas corresponds to, and whose teachings as such acquire normative force from their “expertise”, or they can be “testimonial authorities”, that is, they may not be “officially approved” or sanctioned, but they can provide us with reliable information or evidence as to the state of belief of the Church at that time period. Tertullian and Origen are such “testimonial authorities” who, although do not possess “canonical authority” because of their suspect heretical status, yet they do provide us with reliable information as to what the Church believed in their time. Thus for example even if they press for heretical conclusions, the premises which they employ in aid of their arguments can provide us with insights into what was “common ground” or widely believed by the Catholic Church even if they draw the erroneous conclusions from it.

The use of Pelagius as a witness to the existence of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is particularly apt because he was a famous figure and was embroiled in a major controversy with Augustine precisely over the topic of soteriology. As such, assuming that he did teach the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone, if that teaching were truly against the understanding of the Catholic Church, Augustine would have pounced upon that error at once to denounce him during his polemics with him. If however he could teach those doctrines without raising any eyebrows in the Catholic Church, that serves as good evidence that the belief was, at the very least, a legitimate opinion and option at that time which raised no suspicions.

Furthermore, an additional point in favour of recruiting Pelagius for our cause lies in the fact that Pelagius is well known for insisting upon the necessity for good works performed by freewill for salvation. As such he shares none of the so-called Reformation obsessions about salvic security or the need for a gracious God, etc. However if even such a person with an obsession about the necessity of good works for salvation should read the biblical text in a manner convergent with the Protestant’s conclusions, that is good evidence that that understanding is suggested by the text itself rather than merely an inference from a priori Reformation premises or need for salvic security or anxieties about the insufficiency of good works, etc.

Now to make a much more general point, what this post will be doing is look at the commentaries of Aquinas and Pelagius on Romans and arguing that they provide us with good evidence that the Protestant understanding is a fair reading of the biblical text and one which has precedence in the Catholic Church. What it will not be doing is to argue that “this is what they ultimately believed on the topic”. There is no doubt that upon interpreting the Biblical text they would try to reconcile that interpretation with their own systematic needs and ecclesiastical practices, and doubtless in the course of such reconciliation their interpretation would be qualified and modified, etc. However the conclusion this post seeks to prove is a much more modest one. It merely seeks to establish that the Protestant reading of the biblical text was not a novelty, not a product of the narrow concerns of the Protestant Reformers or assumptions particular to them, but is properly suggested by the text itself, and the fact that figures as diverse as Pelagius and Aquinas, coming from very different backgrounds and theological assumptions, came to the same reading of the Biblical text is good evidence of that conclusion.

Justification by Faith Alone According to Philip Melanchthon

In order to outline Melanchthon’s views on justification by faith alone, I shall be drawing primarily from the Wittenberg Articles 1536, which was an article  Melanchthon drew up in his meeting with the English delegates from King Henry VIII’s court seeking a pan-Protestant alliance with the German Protestant princes. Thus there is an especial focus upon good works in relation to justification for it was the concern of the conservative King to be as consistent with the past as possible. However, it can also be easily shown that the outlines given here can also be found in other Protestants such as Richard Hooker, one of the key theologians of the English Reformation.

So here briefly are the main features of the Protestant understanding of Sola Fide.

(1) Forensic Justification by faith Alone

This refers to the declaration that we are forgiven and reconciled with God by faith alone in Christ without works, and in that sense that we have been so forgiven and reconciled with God, we are “just”, in the right, with God and accepted.  Thus one must be very clear here as to what forensic justification by faith alone means here. It does not exhaust the sense, or ways, in which we are or can be “righteous”. We will expand on the other sense and way we can be “righteous” in the third section when we look at the “two kinds of righteousness”. The present sense of “righteous” merely means “right with God”, not referring to some inherent quality of us possessing righteous, virtuous or good characters. Thus by faith alone, believing in the promises of God in Christ to us, without the works of the law, we are forgiven, reconciled, and accepted. Here is Melanchthon on this point:

…the second element of repentance must be faith by which we believe that our sins are forgiven to us by God and that we are justified and accounted just and become children of God not because of the worthiness of our contrition or of other works but freely for Christ’s sake.


…our acceptance into eternal life is bound up with our justification (that is, with the remission of sins and our reconciliation with God)

(bold and italics mine)

Thus the point of forensic justification by faith alone just is that we are forgiven and reconciled back to God by faith alone.

(2) Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness/Merits

For the second main element of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is what is idea that Christ’s merits or righteousness have been “imputed” or “credited” or “reckoned” to us somehow. In contemporary Protestantism, especially with the New Perspective on Paul, there is some controversy about whether Christ’s merits or righteousness is something which can be transferred around. However, for the purpose of this discussion, we can abstract from the issue and make the following more general claim:

Imputation of Christ’s merits or righteousness means that God, in view of the perfect righteousness and fulfillment of the law by Christ, treats us as if we have fulfilled the whole law. 

(3) Two Kinds of Righteousness

It is unfortunate that this crucial element is normally missing from most popular Protestant accounts of justification by faith alone, but is in fact vital to having a complete picture of the Protestant doctrine. This element is in fact the key to understanding how Protestants would view the justification by works or the deeds righteousness passages.

The doctrine of two kinds of righteousness is basically this: the righteousness whereby we are forgiven and reconciled, is distinct from the righteousness we acquire when we do good works and obey the law and fulfill it. The formula “justification by faith alone” (1) properly refers only to the former. We are “right” with God and forgiven and reconcile to God only by faith alone in Christ. However, there is another kind of righteousness which we acquire upon being forgiven and reconciled, and that is the righteousness of our deeds and works, whereby we obey the law and conform to it, in progressive degrees, and become righteous.

The distinction is known by various names, in Melanchthon he calls it the “righteousness of faith” and the “righteousness of a good conscience”. Hooker calls it “justifying righteousness” and “sanctifying righteousness”. It will be best to quote Melancthon at some length on this point:

Therefore let our conscience firmly hold that we are just, that is, have the remission of sins, or have been reconciled and accepted into eternal life, freely through grace for the sake of Christ, the Mediator, even though we are not worthy. But let us also believe thereafter that the incipient obedience is necessary and that, even though it is far from perfectly fulfilling the Law, nevertheless it is pleasing to God because we are in Christ, for whose sake the sin which still remains in us is remitted.

And this obedience in those who are reconciled by faith is now reckoned as righteousness and as a kind of fulfillment of the Law, not indeed as if it could be made to stand against God’s judgment, according to the passage [1 Cor. 4:4]: “I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified,” but it pleases God because we are in Christ, as Paul teaches Romans 6[:14]: “Now ye are not under the Law but under grace,” that is, the Law no longer accuses you, even though you are not able to satisfy its demands, but now you are God’s children, and therefore it does not accuse you, and as Paul teaches Romans 8[:1]: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.


Now the value of this incipient obedience is great, for, although it is imperfect, nevertheless because the persons concerned are in Christ, this obedience is reckoned to be a kind of fulfillment of the Law and is righteousness, even as the Scripture often calls it thus: [Ps. 119:121]: “I have done judgment and justice,” and John says [1 John 3:7]: “He that doeth righteousness is righteous”, and James [2:24]: “We are justified not by faith only but by works.” This last passage ought not to be understood as if we obtain remission of sins and reconciliation on account of our works, but the meaning is that each of the two righteousnesses is necessary. First, faith is necessary, for by means of it we are justified before God, that is, by it we obtain remission of sins and reconciliation, or by it we are reborn and made children of God; and then also that other righteousness is necessary and owed as a debt, the righteousness of works, or the righteousness of a good conscience.

(italics and underline mine)

Note well the dialectic here. We are righteous or “right with God”, that is, have remissions of sins reconciliation with God by faith alone. And yet we are also righteous in another sense, and this is when we practice good works and obey the law of God, and this obedience which we work is a “kind of fulfillment of the law and is righteousness“. Thus in this sense, our good works do really “justify” us or make us righteousness because it fulfills the law. But there is a subtle dialectic here that while our good works, by itself, does not fulfill the whole law because it is imperfect, but because we are “in Christ”, that is, we have been forgiven and reconciled to God by faith, God reckons our obedience and good works as properly “righteousness” and a kind of fulfillment of the law in view of Christ and our being children of God. This ties in with point (2) very well whereby God treats our good works as properly “righteousness” and a fulfillment of the law, not because it is perfect or without sin, but because of our being children of God and reconciled by faith.

Now that the main features of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone have been outlined, we turn first to Pelagius.

Pelagius on Justification by Faith Alone

Since Pelagius here is rather explicit, I think it will be best to plunge straight into his commentary:

[Romans] 10:3 For since they did not know of God’s righteousness and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Because they did not know that God justifies by faith alone, and because they thought that they were righteous by the works of a law they did not keep, they refused to submit themselves to the forgiveness of sins, to prevent the appearance of their having been sinners, as it is written: ‘But the Pharisees, rejecting the purpose of God for themselves, refused to be baptized with John’s baptism’ ( Luke 7: 30).

4 For the end of the law is Christ for the righteousness of all who believe. On the day one believes in Christ, it is as if one has fulfilled the whole law (cf. Gal. 5: 3).

5 For Moses wrote of the righteousness which is by the law. Moses himself distinguished between the two kinds of righteousness, namely the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of deeds, because the one justifies the suppliant by works, but the other by belief alone. That the person who does these things will live by them.

We have here, practically line by line, each of the key elements of the Protestant doctrine.

First, the idea that “God justifies by faith alone”, contra being “righteous by the works of a law they did not keep”, is simply identified with “forgiveness of sins”, this corresponds to point (1). Second, “the day one believes in Christ, it is as if one has fulfilled the whole law”, this corresponds to point (2) regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Finally there is an explicit reference to “two kinds of righteousness”, the “righteousness of faith and the righteousness of deeds”, one justifies by works, the other by belief alone. This corresponds to point (3).

The point is so explicit that there is simply no need for me to belabour it. All that remains is to give some qualifying remarks about how far Pelagius understanding converges to the Protestant one.

First Pelagius does think that one is only justified by faith alone initially. Second, Pelagius distinguishes the “works of the law” from the “works of righteousness”, and he argues that the former refers to ceremonial laws like circumcision and Sabbath. However, there is a subtle dialectic going on here in his argument.

Romans 3:28 For we deem that a person is justified through faith without the works of the law. We are sure or we judge some misuse this verse to do away with works of righteousness, asserting that faith by itself can suffice for one who has been baptized, although the same apostle says elsewhere: And if I have complete faith, so that I move moutains, but do not have love, it profits me nothing 1 Cor. 13:2; and in another place declares that in this love is contained the fullness of the law, when he says: ‘The fullness of the law is love (Rom. 13:10). Now if these verses seem to contradict the sense of the other verses, what works should one suppose the apostle meant when he said that a person is justified by faith without the works [of the law]? Clearly, the works of circumcision or the Sabbath and others of this sort, and not without the works of righteousness, about which the blessed James says: ‘Faith without works is dead (James 2:26). But in the verse we are treating he is speaking about that person who in coming to Christ is saved, when he first believes, by faith alone. But by adding ‘the works of the law’ he indicates that there is also a work of grace which those who have been baptized ought to perform.

Now this is a pretty remarkable and interesting passage. While Pelagius thinks that the “works of the law”, which plays no part in our justification, refers only to the ceremonial law, nevertheless he affirms the “faith alone” formula, towards the end, on the grounds that a person who initially comes to Christ or “first believes” is saved by faith alone. Thus the idea seems to be that the ceremonial laws do not bar a person from coming to Christ, and upon coming to Christ and believing in him, that belief or faith alone will save him. But then after that there is a “work of grace” or “righteousness” which that person needs to do.

It is not clear that the distinction Pelagius makes here between the ceremonial law and the “works of righteousness” is sustained throughout his commentary for his comments on Romans 10:1-5, which we quoted earlier, does not seem to distinguish clearly between the “righteousness by the law”, which in his comments on chapter 3 is supposed to be the ceremonial law, and the “righteousness of deeds” which is supposedly distinct. Speculatively one could say that Pelagius felt a need to make this distinction between the works of the law, in the sense of ceremonial laws, and the works of righteousness, in the sense of moral good deeds, in Chapter 3 in order to be reconciled to what he thought the other parts of Scripture said and his concern for good deeds. But that distinction he constructed was forgotten or ceased to be applicable by the time he came to Chapter 10.

Incidentally, it has been noted by some contemporary theologians that Pelagius’s understanding of justification by faith alone seems to look remarkably a lot like the contemporary New Perspective on Paul understanding, in that they understanding that the “works of the law” that Paul sought to exclude were the works of ceremonial laws which marked out the Jews as a distinct people from the Gentiles and as a barrier of entry into the covenant people for the Gentiles and “justification by faith alone” means that one can be part of the people of God and be “initially” justified by virtue of faith without the need to conform to these distinctive ethnic markers.

One need not however settle all these issues of trying to harmonise or streamline Pelagius’s thoughts to see that when he turned his attention to the biblical text at hand, Protestant propositions and claims, something very much like it, flowed from his pen, one might even say, even against his own theological instincts or assumptions.

Thomas Aquinas on Justification by Faith Alone

Now that Thomas Aquinas could teach justification by faith alone would no doubt be a surprise for many. However that can be seen in his Commentary on Romans. Since he is rather explicit there, it will be best to jump straight in.

Then (v. 5) he [St Paul] shows how the eternal award is related to faith, saying, but to one who does not work outward works, for example, because he does not have time to work, as in the case of one who dies immediately after baptism, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, namely, in God, of whom he says below (8:33): “It is God who justifies,” his faith is reckoned, i.e., faith alone without outward works, as righteousness, so that in virtue of it he is called just and receives the reward of justice, just as if he had done the works of justice, as he says below (10:10): “Man believes with his heart and so is justified,” according the purpose of the grace of God, i.e., accordingly as God proposes to save men gratuitously: “Who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28); “He accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

Another explanation refers those words to man’s justification. Then to the one who works, i.e., if anyone be justified by works, the justice would be reckoned not as a gift but as his due: “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6). But to him who does not work, so as to be justified by his works, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith will be reckoned as justice according to the purpose of God’s grace, not that he merits justice through faith, but because the believing itself is the first act of the justice God works in him. For from the fact that he believes in God justifying, he submits himself to his justification and thus receives its effect. This is the literal explanation and accords with the intention of the Apostle, who lays special stress on the words, “it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6)” a saying which is used when that which is lacking on someone’s part is reckoned to him gratis, as if he had accomplished the whole.

-Commentary on Romans Chapter 4 (330)

(underline mine)

Unlike contemporary Roman Catholics, Aquinas was not allergic to the phrase of “faith alone without outward works”. However in this passage two main Protestant elements in the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone, whereby one is “called just and receives the reward of justice”, and the doctrine of imputation of righteousness, “just as if he had done the works of justice”. One needs to note very carefully that unlike Pelagius, he doesn’t mean faith alone to the exclusion to the works of the ceremonial law, but faith alone even to the works of justice itself. This is a pretty strong claim and can be buttressed by what Aquinas says elsewhere in his commentary where he explicitly denies that the works of the law can be collapsed into merely the ceremonial law. In his comments on Romans 3:27 he notes:

“He cleansed their hearts by faith” (Ac 15:9). And this apart from the works of the law. Not only without the ceremonial works, which did not confer grace but only signified it, but also without the works of the moral precepts, as stated in Titus 3(:5), “Not because of deeds done by us in righteousness.”

(bold and underline mine)

Thus whereas Pelagius tried to construct a distinction between the works of the law in the sense of ceremonial laws and the works of “righteousness”, Aquinas would have none of that distinction and affirmed that God cleanses hearts by faith, both without the ceremonial law and the works of the moral precepts.

Now one might say that Aquinas is restricting justification by faith alone to a very specific condition, that is only if one does not have time to do works of righteousness, but this is not a reading which could be sustained for he cites the reason of the lack of time to do works of righteousness merely as an example of a type of situation where someone may need to be justified by faith alone without works, not as a necessary precondition. There is no doubt that for Aquinas the scenarios whereby one can be justified by faith without works is not indefinite and excludes certain scenarios, such as in the case for those who willfully remain in mortal sin. However even Melanchthon teaches that “When people indulge in sinful passions and give place to deeds which are contrary to God’s Law, they do not remain in grace.” and “justification cannot be retained unless this incipient obedience is retained”, as such there is no divergence on this point between the Protestant and Aquinas.

Conclusion: The Witness of the Catholic Church

Once more it is necessary to reiterate the point which this post seeks to demonstrate: that when both saints, and heretics, coming from very different theological backgrounds and assumptions, come to the biblical text, they read it in a manner convergent with Protestant teachings. And this conclusion still holds regardless of what “justification” means for these people when they turn away from the text to do their systematics or attempt to reconcile it with their own beliefs, assumptions, or eccleasiastical needs. If indeed, as the Protestant insists, that justification by faith alone is a crucial doctrine, and that all crucial doctrines can is accessible and perspicuous, then the fact that both a theologian of grace like Aquinas, and a theologian of good works like Pelagius, came to the conclusions identical to that of the Protestant’s constitute strong evidence for the fact that this is in fact the interpretation of the text itself.

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