Were the main ideas of the Protestant Reformation (sola fide and sola scriptura) novel ideas unheard of before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses in 1517? One Protestant historian, Alistair McGrath claims that the idea of justification by faith alone (sola fide) was a brand new idea created by Luther. Is such a claim true?
Not at all, claims Nathan Busenitz, author of the book “Long Before Luther”. Dr. Busenitz is the Dean of Faculty and an assistant professor of theology at The Master’s Seminary in California. He has done yeoman’s work in this book, tracing the doctrine of justification by faith through the original “church fathers” (the apostles Paul, Peter, John, etc…) and the early church fathers from the late first century through the fifth century. He also traces this doctrine, a cornerstone of Reformation theology, in medieval saints and theologians as well!
Here are a few quotes from the ancient church fathers: Clement of Rome (died c. AD 100)– “And so we, having being called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Polycarp (c AD. 69-160)–“Though you have not seen him, you beieve in him with an inexpressible and glorious joy (which many desire to experience), knowing that by grace you have been saved, not because of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.”
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202)–“The Lord, therefore, was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor, again, was the Lord’s Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed Him; wherefore it was accounted to him by the Lord for righteousness. For faith towards God justifies a man.
Origen (c.182-254)–“He [Paul] is saying that the justification of faith alone sufices, so that the one who only believes is justified even if he has not accomplished a single work.”
And it goes on from there. This is just a smattering. The good doctor provides ample proof from such luminaries as Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chrysostom that the early church preserved the idea that people are saved by faith in Christ alone…and not at all by their own efforts or faithfulness to rituals or ceremonies.
Fascinating reading! Dr. Busenitz has done good work.