Protestants of the Classical Reformation variety think of Augustine as their historical anchor. When responding to the objection that such and so doctrine was unknown prior to the Reformation, the first name to fall off their lips is Augustine. Such is not the case with justification. Augustine didn’t adhere to the doctrine of Sola Fide.
To be clear, the doctrine is quite specific. Sola Fide is the idea that faith as a virtue is worthless in and of itself before God. It cannot please God, but what it can do is function as a conduit for the transfer of moral credit. Faith then is the means or the highway by which moral credit travels from Christ to me and my demerit travels to Christ. The respective merit and demerit are extrinsically applied and related to their subjects. That means that the merit applied to me is not grounded in my character, actions or nature or my demerit in the person or natures of Christ. This is because my character, actions or nature cannot produce moral credit that is complete and at best only partial. But justification is glossed as an all or nothing deal so that divine justice requires a complete righteousness. So I cannot participate in my own justification. Hence Christ’s righteousness that he merits during his earthly sojourn is applied to me as a label. I am classed as righteous even though I am not so. And because it is complete, justification and its merit cannot increase or decrease.
This merit it should be noted is earned by Christ. It is not the righteousness Christ has by virtue of being the divine person he is. The relation qua righteousness or rather the material relation between Christ and the sinner is therefore contingent. It may be an eternally planned for righteousness or justice, but it is not an eternal righteousness. In this sense this merited righteousness is a created grace and as such it is appropriate to human nature that was created intrinsically righteous or with natural grace. The righteousness on the schema of Sola Fide then that is applied forensically or taxonomically to me is a created intermediary between me and God. That in sum is the doctrine. And that doctrine is taken by Protestantism to be the Gospel so that if one rejects that idea, one is rejecting the Gospel.
But Augustine doesn’t believe or teach this schema. When Augustine precludes works or our participation in justification he does so in terms of precluding our participation apart from the influence of grace. Further, Augustine understands justification not in terms of being labeled righteous, but in being made righteous. When Augustine does consider justification as purely forensic, he takes it in terms of a false or hypocritical justice.
“Now he could not mean to contradict himself in saying, ‘The doers of the law shall be justified,’ must be so understood, as that we may know that they are not otherwise doers of the law, unless they be justified, so that justification does not subsequently accrue to them as doers of the law, but justification precedes them as doers of the law. For what else does the phrase ‘being justified’ signify than being made righteous,-by Him, of course, who justifies the ungodly man, that he may become a godly one instead? For if we were to express a certain fact by saying, “The men will be liberated,” the phrase would of course be understood as asserting that the liberation would accrue to those who were men already; but if we were to say, The men will be created, we should certainly not be understood as asserting that the creation would happen to those who were already in existence, but that they became men by the creation itself. If in like manner it were said, The doers of the law shall be honoured, we should only interpret the statement correctly if we supposed that the honour was to accrue to those who were already doers of the law: but when the allegation is, “The doers of the law shall be justified,” what else does it mean than that the just shall be justified? for of course the doers of the law are just persons. And thus it amounts to the same thing as if it were said, The doers of the law shall be created,-not those who were so already, but that they may become such; in order that the Jews who were hearers of the law might hereby understand that they wanted the grace of the Justifier, in order to be able to become its doers also. Or else the term “They shall be justified” is used in the sense of, They shall be deemed, or reckoned as just, as it is predicated of a certain man in the Gospel, “But he, willing to justify himself,”-meaning that he wished to be thought and accounted just. In like manner, we attach one meaning to the statement, “God sanctifies His saints,” and another to the words, “Sanctified be Thy name;” for in the former case we suppose the words to mean that He makes those to be saints who were not saints before, and in the latter, that the prayer would have that which is always holy in itself be also regarded as holy by men,-in a word, be feared with a hallowed awe. The Spirit and the Letter, 45.
In another passage Augustine argues that we actually participate in our justification and it increases relative in part to our efforts under the influence of grace.
“But I had suggested considering which of these four things we have already gained, which we are still waiting to acquire. Obviously, we have already been predestined, even before we existed. We were called, when we became Christians. So we have already got that. What about being justified? What does it mean, being justified? Have we got the nerve to say we already have this third thing? And will there be any of us bold enough to say, ‘I am just’? I assume, after all that to say that, John confronts you: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us ( Jn 1:8).
So what then? Have we no justice at all? Or do we have some, but not the whole of it? So this is what we have got to find out. So if there’s something we have, and something we haven’t got, we must let what we have grow, and what we haven’t got will be completed. I mean, here we are with people who have been baptized, all their sins have been forgiven, they have been justified from their sins. We can’t deny it.
There remains, however, the struggle with the flesh, there remains the struggle with the devil. When you are struggling, you sometimes hit, sometimes you get hit; sometimes you win, sometimes, you’re done for; it remains to be seen how you will leave the stadium. Because if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Again, if we say we have no justice at all, we are telling a lie about God’s gifts. You see, if we have no justice at all, we haven’t got faith either and if we haven’t got faith, we aren’t Christians. But if we do have faith, we already have at least some justice. Do you want to know how much that some of it is? The just live by faith (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17; Heb 10:38); The just I repeat, live by faith, because they believe what they cannot see.” Sermon 158, sec. 4.
Sola Fide as a historical doctrine then finds no home in Augustine since his stated views above preclude it. This means that barring any other historical anchor, that while Augustine may be a historical witness for some of the Reformers’ views on predestination, Sola Gratia, etc. they aren’t for Sola Fide and Sola Fide is the Gospel. Sola Fide then must rest as far as historical witnesses are concerned on other grounds than Augustine’s teaching on Sola Gratia and predestination. Augustine’s Sola Gratia and predestination are easily found among plenty of pre-Reformation Latin writers such as Anselm, Albert the Great and Aquinas. Aquinas and Scotus have just as robust and hard view of predestination as one could want. And those thinkers are every bit as sophisticated and capable exegetes as the Reformers were, probably more so. One does oneself a disservice by not taking them seriously and ignoring them. As for Sola Gratia, this is clearly explicated in not only Augustine, but Aquinas as well. Part of the problem with the Reformers was the majority of the first generation of them were ignorant in the main of Aquinas’ teaching on grace. When they got exposure to Aquinas, it was through citations in manuals and given an Okhamistic or Scotistic gloss. There are exceptions in part such as Bucer who was more influenced by Thomism, but in the main, a good number, though not all perhaps, of the Reformers worries about grace working prior to or after an act performed by natural power could have been assuaged by Aquinas’ theology of grace.
The upshot is, if your motivation for being protestant is grounded on Sola Gratia and Augustinian predestinarianism, this will just as easily serve as a basis for being Catholic since at least historically, and I’d argue conceptually, one can adhere to Sola Gratia and Augustinian predestinarianism without adhering to Sola Fide. Sola Gratia and Sola Fide can be pried apart. Something more is required to justify Protestant separation.
It could be argued that Sola Fide is or could be implied by Augustine’s views on grace and predestination. That is possible but I don’t think this is very tenable. First, Augustine didn’t take them to be so. It is not impossible for the source of ideas to be ignorant as to the implications of their thought, but we would need some reason for thinking this was the case with Augustine’s other than the fact that he didn’t see waht the Reformers claimed to see. The statements cited above, along with others represent his mature teaching. Augustine’s followers for numerous centuries didn’t take Sola Fide to be an implication of his teaching either. While it is likewise not impossible for them to miss the implications of Augustine’s teaching, it renders the claim more implausible.
What is more is that we would need a demonstration that the former implies the latter. What is often presented is an argument going something like the following. Augustine’s teaching on Sola Gratia is incompatible with the view that we merit justification of our own internally unaided natural ability (Pelagianism). The preclusion of Pelagianism implies Sola Fide. It is true that Augustine’s teaching on Sola Gratia precludes meriting justification by our own internally unaided natural ability, but it does so without seemingly needing Sola Fide. If the condign operation of internally aiding grace is necessary for the beginnings of faith and serves as the foundation of works that please God, why exactly do we need to view justice as taxonomically applied to me via the instrument of an intrinsically worthless virtue such as faith? The goal is secured already. All works that do please God after that point are done under the influence and internal aid of grace anyway. Augustine and plenty of later Augustinians preclude Pelagianism without Sola Fide. The same will be true with respect to semi-pelagianism or even neo-semi-pelagianism. The Synod of Orange did just fine without Sola Fide.
If the argument is that the Augustine’s doctrine of grace is incompatible with any participation by us in justification and the only way to do that is via Sola Fide, then the matter is different. But this runs up against a number of obstacles. If so, then Augustine ceases to be a historical witness for Sola Fide since he affirms that works done under grace contribute to our justification and that justification is being made righteous rather than being classed as righteous and that this classification is uncoupled and not based on our inward state. Second, it convicts Augustine of a serious inconsistency so that the maintenance of Sola Fide is built on the back of denying Augustine as a historical witness for Sola Fide. To the overall argument it isn’t clear to me why we would need to preclude all human activity and participation in justification. It certainly didn’t preclude Christ’s humanity from participating in it so it can’t be a problem relative to human nature per se.
But perhaps the idea is that fallen human nature can’t participate in justification. Putting aside the fact that this too is not only not Augustine’s teaching, but contrary to it, the idea seems to be that divine justice is complete and any justice that included our participation would not be so. I don’t think that helps. Remember that the justice that is imputed to us on Sola Fide is not divine justice, but a created justice and certainly divinity doesn’t have the property of being created. If the idea is that nothing created can justify or contribute to or participate in justification, this will not only preclude a merited righteousness but it will undercut the entire Reformation gloss on the incarnate meriting work of Christ in terms of passive and active obedience. Secondly, Augustine indicates that divine aid or grace perfects even fallen works grounded in grace so that I am wondering why grace can’t perfect and complete actions done in part by the power of a corrupted nature? Can’t grace perfect human nature or is human nature impenetrable to divine activity?
But the move to argue for implication misses the point. The question is who is a historical witness to the idea and not what logically may be derivable from someone’s earlier teaching. If the idea is not expressly manifested or there is not sufficient evidence to warrant the claim that it is in fact present in Augustine but derived by later minds, this concedes the point. Further, it is an implicit appeal to the notion of doctrinal development. That claim would be in sum that nascent within Augustine’s teaching is Sola Fide and that it was drawn out and made explicit through a process which involved a mix of historical and conceptual forces, either in terms of logical implication or some mysterious appeal to something like the Platonic élan vital guiding the explication and amplification of doctrine.
While I suppose this is possible, I don’t find it helpful. First it is a concession that the doctrine is not expressly present in Augustine. In order to argue for development, one has to attenuate and weaken the manifestation of the idea in its origin or source to support the later amplification of it. Second, it depends on an Idealistic model, where past actions contribute one way or another to some future reality. Idealistic systems have great explanatory power, but they also have serious defects. Since they can explain all antecedent states in light of some future or present goal, they are capable of rendering any supposed counter evidence to them compatible. They are totalizing. The problem here is not that such models are not falsifiable in the sense that Popper had in mind. I reject falsificationism. It was rightly short lived. The problem is that developmental models can be made consistent with any fact, even if the model is false (since consistency alone is insufficient to imply truth) This pushes appeals to development back on to the question of what is the basis by which we judge a model to be true? Appeals to Scipture I don’t think will help, since scriptural passages are not brute or non-theory laden facts. Second, the point was to show a historical witness to an idea and not to answer the question of what the content of Scripture is at this juncture. Relative to the question on the table, what Scripture may indicate is a separate question. To move from the question on the table to what Scripture may indicate is to concede the point that development is an inadequate basis to claim Augustine as a historical witness for Sola Fide. Furthermore, given the nature of idealistic systems of development it is possible that Augustine’s teaching may in fact be developed in other legitimate or consistent ways so that we now need not only a basis on which to judge between them, but we need to know who is to do the judging in theology between rivial and incommensurable developed models of theology? The difference here is how many referees one is going to empower, one man in Rome or the Legion? The irony being that both sides think that doctrine develops in order to justify the distinctives of their theology. As with all things dialectically related, the things most unlike are also the things that are the most alike.
And an appeal to development will also compromise the perspicuity of Augustine’s writing or at least his mind. This is necessary in order to construct the development over history. If Augustine and his writings were clear on the matter, the appeal to development would be unnecessary. And so an appeal to development I think betrays an admission that Sola Fide just isn’t there, at least not expressly, in the first place.
Sometimes the argument is made that Augustine didn’t know Greek but only Latin. And this ignorance led him to misunderstand the Pauline corpus. Supposing this is true, it will also imply that Augustine didn’t understand the teaching of Christ on the matter of justification in the Gospels too as well as the rest of the Bible. One should keep in mind that that is a heavier argumentative burden to bear-Augustine didn’t understand the gospel throughout the Bible. It is true that early on Augustine lacked proficiency in Greek, but he seemed to have gained a good amount of proficiency later in life. It seems plausible to me that he would have spotted the doctrine at that stage. Secondly, Latin translations aren’t completely distorting with respect to the Greek text so that it is likely that Augustine would have at least seen the doctrine in other passages. He wasn’t stupid. After all, English readers seem to do just fine, or no? But even if he lacked Greek proficiency all through his life, this doesn’t help the claim that Augustine taught Sola Fide, but in fact counts against it. If his Latin translations were sufficiently distorting, then while this will explain his taking justification to be a making righteous, just like Trent, it shows that he didn’t teach Sola Fide, but something else instead. Besides, in Greek speakers such as Chrysostom or Cyril we don’t find the doctrine either so the objection regarding linguistic competence is implausible.
Another subsidiary argument is that even if it isn’t found in Augustine, it is found in other Fathers. Space does not permit a full blown treatment obviously, but suffice it to say that I don’t judge that to be the case. Surely there are cases where the term “faith alone” can be found, but one would fall into the word-concept fallacy by simply posting texts that contained the term. That would show that the Arians were Trinitarians since they also used the words triados or trinitas. It has to be shown that the idea expressed is the idea as I sketched above. (This is why books like this and this are irrelevant now.) The same goes for texts that speak of an exchange between the righteous and unrighteous, covering for sins and such. Plenty of expressly non-advocates of Sola Fide use such terms and phrases freely in Late Antiquity and the Medieval period. Further, I take studies by people like McGrath to show that the doctrine isn’t in fact found in those sources to be sufficient to make the point. (And this is why McGrath seems to me to feel the need to appeal to some kind of development through history.)
Another argument is that Augustine was saved by Sola Fide even if he didn’t teach it. Assuming the doctrine is true for the sake of argument, even if that’s true, it is irrelevant since the question is whether Augustine’s teaching is a witness in history to the doctrine. And since the plausibility of the truth of the claim in part depends on whether it was historically taught prior to the Reformation, this argument is at best question begging since if it wasn’t taught by Augustine, this renders it less plausible that the Bible does in fact teach it. If competent readers repeatedly miss something nearly obvious for over a thousand years, then it probably isn’t obvious or it isn’t present in the text.
Other times Warfield’s statement is tossed up that Augustine’s soteriology won out at the Reformation against his ecclesiology so that his formal principle lost to his material principle. Not only does this convict Augustine of a serious inconsistency, but it seems factually mistaken. It is Augustine’s material principle qua justification that is in fact opposed to the Reformation material principle qua justification. Since the Reformation rejects Augustine’s view of justification it can’t represent a triumph of his soteriology, unless of course we mean by that Sola Gratia. But if that is what is meant then Trent is also a representative of Augustine’s soteriology since it too advocates Augustine’s teaching on that point.
None of the above is an argument to the effect that Protestants should become Catholic. What I think it does show is that if the Gospel is Sola Fide, then Augustine is not a historical witness to it. Furthermore, Augustine taught something else other than Sola Fide, in which case by Protestant lights he probably taught a false gospel, deserving no less an anathema from the Reformers than Trent or the Scholastics. I think Protestants should own this implication. If Aquinas and other Scholastics are heretics on justification, then why not Anselm and Augustine for teaching the same thing? It seems rather specious to claim they weren’t confronted with the doctrine clearly set forth. That’s a howler since it implies that Scripture doesn’t set forth the doctrine clearly and certainly if they had the Scriptures, why would they need a doctrine raised from the dead centuries later? Isn’t saint Paul sufficient? Or maybe it was due to their not believing in Sola Scriptura? Oops. That doesn’t seem like a viable Protestant out. If Sola Fide is the sum of the Gospel, then Augustine taught a false Gospel which makes him at least materially a false teacher. If Sola Fide is true, there is no gospel for Augustine. Is that what you wish to say?