It’s Obvious-Sola Fide, Scripture and the Church Fathers

I. Introduction

Readers of EP will note that last December I did a somewhat short livestream answering Reformed apologist, Anthony Rogers on Sola Fide and the Church Fathers. Here I’d like to extend that argument.  I think there are other valuable points that will be useful in arguing with Protestants (and others). These will help others get clear on just what the concept of Sola Fide is supposed to be and how one could find out if it is expressed in a text.

What I won’t be doing is responding to Mr. Rogers’ snipes and this for a few reasons. Self-confessedly and to date Mr. Rogers has yet to even watch the material I provided. This hasn’t kept him from engaging arguments I did not make. At points he knowingly fabricates arguments I did not make and associates them with me, only to knock them down with ease. In addition Mr. Rogers tosses out pet names for me (“Despairing Perry” and such, which I kindly take in a Kierkegaardian sense following John 11:4) and other personal digs which are irrelevant. These I view as implicit concessions on Mr. Rogers part because if he had an actual argument that demonstrated I was wrong, he would not need to use such irrelevant tactics. Giving a good argument to demonstrate that I am wrong would be sufficient. Such things as he provides merely cloud the issues and make it more difficult for people to reach clarity of mind to see the truth. If Rogers cares about helping others see the truth, he should cease from such behavior and if he doesn’t, then that tells you everything you need to know about his goals. Besides, such behavior falls afoul of 2 Tim 2:24-25 and other scriptures and because it does, and because I can’t make  Mr. Rogers mature and virtuous, there is no point in engaging them.  Consequently, until he provides an argument that engages what I put forth, there really is no point in discussing his irrelevancies.

II. Jerome’s Historical Multiple Personality Disorder

As viewers of the livestream know, Mr. Rogers fell into an error that was a howler. Rogers cites a text from Jerome’s commentary on Romans to prove that Jerome expressed the Reformation doctrine of Sola Fide. But of course, Jerome never wrote a commentary on Romans and the text in question is without dispute from Pelagius’ commentary on Romans, which was falsely attributed to Jerome. This text had at least been strongly suspected of being Pelagian and in fact at times corrected with respect to Pelagian teaching since around the sixth century A.D. By the early twentieth century, it had been conclusively demonstrated that the text was in fact from Pelagius’ commentary on Romans as all sides admit. This has been the situation for the last 100 years.

As something of a digression, Rogers has simply jumped the shark on this point claiming that the material in Pelagius is just more evidence that Sola Fide was taught in the Church Fathers prior to the Reformation. I’ll have more to say about this later on. There were many other howlers that Mr. Rogers expressed, particularly with respect to Marius Victorinus, but this one caught the most attention and I think it is very useful for what I aim to demonstrate.

III. A Text Without a Context is a Pretext for Error

Walter Martin used to employ this line and I find it very useful to my overall point. To begin, I simply put up the text in question, taken from Pelagius’ commentary on Romans. This is not the only text where Pelagius speaks like this as has been documented by others. If you wish, you can now pick up all of Pelagius’ commentaries on the Pauline corpus as I did, and see for yourself.

“Because they did not know that God justifies by faith alone, and because they thought that they were righteous by works of the 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).”

Pelagius, Commentary on Romans 10:3

Just for disclosure purposes, I cited this text in 2010 to make fundamentally the same point as I made against Rogers, namely that the mere use of the terms couched in Pauline verbiage is insufficient to demonstrate that an author is expressing the concept of Sola Fide. This will be important later on. What I wish to point out here is that the language is not vague or unclear. Obviously Pelagius speaks of justification by faith alone. It is, after all right there in the Latin, plain as day.

“Ignorantes quod deus ex sola fide iustificat

Pelagius, Commentary on Romans 10:3

As you can see, it is right there in the Latin, literally sola fide or faith alone. So, there is no debate about the wording of the text. As already noted, there are many other places where Pelagius speaks explicitly in the same way so this text is not unique. One might wonder then if the text is perspicuous or clear. Could one use the ordinary means to understand the text to express Sola Fide? If so, how exactly? What could be the plain sense of the text? But if the plain sense of the text is clear, shouldn’t what it means be obvious? And why did and do so many Protestants miss the plain sense or meaning of this clear text?

IV. Reductio Ad Absurdum

I took Pelagius’ use of the phrase as a backstop for a reductio argument. A sufficient grasp of Pelagius’ teaching will make it clear that he doesn’t mean by the phrase what the Reformers meant by the phrase. And this is true whether one takes a more traditional read of Pelagius’ teaching or a more revisionist account. The conditional reasoning is quite simple. If the relevant phrase, justified by faith alone, were sufficient to express the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide, then Pelagius taught the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. But Pelagius did not teach the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide, and so the phrase is not sufficient to express the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide.

As I have noted elsewhere, this is not a point Protestants should contest as their own views in part depend on the point I am making here. Take whatever Protestant reading of James 2 that you like. It will be the case that on Protestant grounds that when James denies that one is justified by “faith alone” he doesn’t mean the Protestant doctrine claimed to be expressed by Paul in say Romans 4. Scriptural usage alone on the assumption of the truth of Confessional Protestantism makes this point for me. This is the case if Confessional Protestantism were right about justification and everything else it distinctively claims. So, this doesn’t turn on the truth of a non-Protestant view, my own or anyone else’s.

Now in the face of this rather obvious and perspicuous reasoning and evidence, Mr. Rogers has doubled down. First, by claiming that it doesn’t matter who wrote the text, whether Jerome or Pelagius. Honestly, I find this line rather baffling. If meaning is at least in part discerned and known by usage and context, then it matters who wrote it since it matters what they intended to express. And that is informed by what we know of the person and their overall views. Later on Mr. Rogers claimed that the text from Pelagius is just more evidence for Sola Fide in the early church.

Dr. R. Scott Clark of Westminster Theological Seminary

It should go without saying that when one offers you an absurd conclusion, the point is not to agree to it as Mr. Rogers has done. As proof of the absurdity of such a view, I simply cite Dr. R. Scott Clark, professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary whose area of specialization is historical theology. I sent a note to Dr. Clark about this issue back in April and I described the situation but abstracted the names. You can listen to what I wrote to him since he recites it in his answer, Dr. Clark’s analysis of Pelagius and what he meant by the phrase here. (Starting at approx. 49 min even)

As you can hear for yourself, Dr. Clark takes the same position on what Pelagius meant as I do, directly contrary to Mr. Rogers. Dr. Clark also references the same exact translation by Theodore de Bruyn that I utilized in my livestream. Dr. Clark is crystal clear that anyone making the kinds of

claims that Mr. Rogers make is simply not paying attention to the fact that the same words mean different things for Pelagius. One would think that for Mr. Rogers who has done apologetics against various sects, this point is a “no brainer.” Dr. Clark goes so far as to express that anyone making the claim along the lines of Mr. Rogers simply “can’t read a text very well.” (Hmm, that might explain a few things about Mr. Rogers presentations on justification in the scriptures and the Fathers.) One doesn’t have to wonder what he would make of Mr. Rogers’ rather unique claim. Here I simply pit Dr. Clark as a specialist in historical theology against the judgment of Mr. Rogers. I don’t think it follows that simply because Dr. Clark is in a better position to know that he in fact does know. But if you were a betting man, where would you place your money? Besides, all I did is what Dr. Clark did, which is to read the primary sources and academic literature on the Pelagian corpus, and for this, Mr. Rogers oddly says I am incompetent. How very strange.

Now I take it as uncontroversial that Dr. Clark is not sympathetic to an Orthodox reading of Paul on justification, especially given his past prosecuting the Federal Vision, and that Westminster Seminary is not a place where Orthodox readings of Paul on justification receive sympathy. Dr. Clark isn’t the only Reformed expert in historical theology that I queried either, but they all gave the same reading of Pelagius’ usage of the phrase.

IV. A Brief History of An Error

In the interests of fairness, I should note that Mr. Rogers isn’t the only person who makes this howler, though he is the first to double down and posit the absurd conclusion that Pelagius’ text is evidence of Sola Fide prior to the Reformation. He deserves credit for uniqueness here, though reason escapes him. I suppose somebody in church history has to be first and Mr. Rogers has definitely made a unique contribution. In any case, I wish to examine a few of the other contemporary individuals who make use of this text as supporting and expressing the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. Initially there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

The text is repeatedly cited without the user bothering to check the reference. Consequently, the text gets recycled on the internet without question. This alone should instill a healthy reluctance in readers to agree that a provided text proves what is claimed for it with no verification and analysis. And this should be so even if the text appears to express the idea claimed for it. While it is true that various Protestant figures use the text before the modern age, they at least have the excuse that it was only suspected of being Pelagian and was not in fact known to be. Contemporary persons lack that or any other reasonable excuse.

Over the span of the last century it doesn’t take too much digging in trying to find Jerome’s alleged commentary on Romans to discover that the text is not from Jerome, but from Pelagius.

(Incidentally, this is one of the ways you know Mr. Rogers and others are in fact guilty of quote mining, despite protestations to the contrary.) With the ease of the internet little exculpatory room is available to modern users of the text and by little here I mean none. While such mistakes are more excusable for laymen, trained scholars should know and do better. And as we shall see, there are a few of them in the mix. 

The first person is John Bugay who runs or at one time ran the Reformation500 blog.  Mr. Bugay is quite well known for his criticisms of Catholicism. Mr. Bugay is a Presbyterian (PCA) layman by his telling and in this particular post from 2008 he cites the material from Pelagius, clearly attributing it to St. Jerome. Bugay provides the Latin text, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to plug this into Google Translate, as apparently Mr. Rogers had done. Even though Bugay and I have sparred in the past, and I posted this text from Pelagius back in 2010, I am unaware of whether he is aware that the text is from Pelagius. Incidentally, those who watched my livestream will notice that many of the same texts that Mr. Rogers used are all here, ready for copy pasting with no analysis and argument provided. I suppose this is how the Reformed make eisegesis easy?

Next up, we have the Protestant apologist who goes by the name of “Turretinfan.” Apparently Turretinfan (TF) works in some super-secret government agency and can’t reveal his identity.

Turretinfan

Readers of EP will note that we have sparred in the past, particularly over his Nestorianizing Christology as well as his case for Iconoclasm-for some strange reason those two things tend to go together.

The first thing to note about TF’s post is that it is his claim that the texts he provides demonstrate that the idea of Sola Fide was expressed prior to the Reformation. So it isn’t just the phrase but the idea that he thinks is being expressed by the text he provides. Notice again that this post is from 2011 and that many of the same texts occur here, including the Pelagian text attributed to Jerome.

Notice TF’s remarks on the text in question. He writes,

“The above speaks for itself, but note that the exact phrase ‘sola fide’ is found.”

Turretinfan, 07/17/2011

So the claim is that the text is explicit and the expression of the idea of Sola Fide is obvious. Remember, the claim that TF makes is that these texts express the idea of Sola Fide. The irony and the point is, that this text at least does not in fact “speak for itself.” The meaning is not perspicuously grasped. In fact, TF, like Rogers and Bugay, have read a text which at the very least, does not mean what they claim it means and in fact has a meaning directly opposite to the idea they claim is being expressed. If the text is perspicuous and “speaks for itself” why is it that they read the text completely wrongly? Are their exegetical and interpretative protocols and practices that bad? Are they cognitively challenged? Isn’t exegesis simply a matter of utilizing lexigraphical data combined with the application of syntactical rules? Or is their eisegesis of the text merely a case of confirmation bias? And if so, isn’t that possible with all the other patristic texts they cite? If not, why not? Hmm.

Now to be fair, if you notice in the comments section of the blog post, TF gets called out by a Catholic, who, rightly noted that this text is not from Jerome, but from Pelagius. TF gives a few defenses that are useful to consider. First he notes that Pelagius was not condemned for teaching justification by faith alone. This of course is true, in a sense. That sense is that that phraseology wasn’t picked out for condemnation. That much of course is true but it does no exculpatory or demonstrative work to show that he had the Protestant idea in mind. Neither does the lack of condemnation imply or entail approval of the Protestant use of the term. What TF needs is that what Pelagius meant by the phrase “justified by faith alone”, namely the Protestant idea was approved or not condemned. As you heard from Dr. Clark, what Pelagius meant was in fact condemned and is in fact still condemned by Reformation figures for the last five centuries. Here I think it is obvious that TF is trying to have it both ways, namely the term is not condemned and this implies that his specific concept is theologically A-OK. This is simply a non-sequitur. I think he confuses the idea of Sola Fide, with the mere use of the term. Here is yet another instance of the word-concept fallacy ever so ably and eagerly exhibited by Mr. Rogers. More directly, TF needs it to be the case that Pelagius wasn’t condemned for the Protestant idea of Sola Fide, otherwise noting that he wasn’t condemned for the mere words provides nothing of value here. If Pelagius wasn’t condemned for expressing some non-Protestant conception of justification by faith alone, how does that fact support the Protestant position? It doesn’t. And it goes without saying, or at least it ought to, that thinking that Pelagius expressed the Protestant view of justification by faith alone is absurd.

Next up, TF says regarding the Protestant idea of justification by faith alone, “It’s the antithesis of Pelagianism, but not necessarily the antithesis of everything Pelagius ever wrote or taught.” This seems to miss the point. How likely is it that Pelagius’ view of faith and what “justified by faith alone” means is contradictory to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide? Isn’t that the point? Doesn’t that encapsulate Pelagianism or at least enough of it the warrant rejection and condemnation by the Reformed? If not, what could? Besides, if Sola Fide as a concept is incompatible with Pelagianism, then anything else that it isn’t incompatible with it is rather irrelevant. What is relevant is how we are interpret Pelagius when he uses the phrase and that the mere use of the phrase doesn’t entail the Protestant concept. Pelagius most certainly does not mean what the Reformers meant. Again, this is a point I should not have to argue. Lastly, notice that TF has yet to concede that the text is in fact from Pelagius and it doesn’t mean what the Reformers meant.

Also notice TF’s apparent befuddlement that Pelagius could mean something so diametrically opposed to the Reformation teaching simply on the basis of the occurrence of the phrase in the text. He asks whether when Pelagius says “faith alone” he means “works alone?” But of course, it is not as if Pelagius had no soteriological space for faith. In fact, as the Reformed view matters, having any human acts contribute to justification amounts to some form of Pelagianism (which incidentally is absurd since that would convict Augustine of Pelagianism. If one thinks about it, Rogers is really arguing against an Augustinian view of justification.). And this is precisely why faith is viewed as an empty virtue by the Confessional Reformation traditions. It is entirely worthless relative to justification and is merely instrumentally valuable. Here one simply needs to read Dr. Clark’s remarks. The point being, contra TF, even on Reformed grounds it wouldn’t need to be the case that Pelagius meant “works alone” for his expression of justification by faith alone to fit consistently into his heterodox views. Part of the problem here is that TF and others simply can’t imagine the other conceptual possibilities that historically occur in terms of using that phrase in the history of theology to express some other ideas other than the Protestant

The last serving US T-Rex (Belgium 1941)

conception of Sola Fide. And part of the reason is that they aren’t attempting to interpret ancient texts on their own grounds and terms, but rather reading back into them a sense that has not been demonstrated to be expressed by them. This is not speculation on my part since they’ve already documented themselves doing precisely this with this text…for 500 years and counting.

In attempting to make sense of the passage, TF offers an interpretation as to what constituted Pelagianism and then some interpretative options for the selected text. The read on Pelagianism he offers is that it denies the necessity of grace. This of course is true as far as it goes, but as a statement it is ambiguous and trades on an equivocation. First, Pelagius asserted the necessity of grace and even in some sense its full sufficiency. Second, the problem was in part, differing definitions of what constituted grace and what counted as sufficiency. So, saying that he denied the necessity or even sufficiency of grace begs at least one question. And it should be noted here that what the opponents of Pelagius meant by grace wasn’t merely an attitudinal relation between the mind of God and the individual recipient. The debate with Augustine turned in large measure on whether grace was to be viewed in an external and exemplary way, one might even say, forensic, or whether it was to be viewed as divine power operating in, on, and with a human agent. The Pelagians took the former and Augustine the latter.

TF’s proposed interpretations of Pelagius’ text run as follows.

“1) By faith, Pelagius meant works. This seems unlikely, given the portion of the context that was provided.

2) Pelagius thought that men could have faith without grace.3) Pelagius distinguished between God justifying men and men justifying themselves, as two ways of salvation.4) Pelagius was inconsistent.5) Pelagius himself wasn’t a ‘Pelagian,’ and the Pelagian error was either a misunderstanding or the fault of his disciples, not himself.”

3) Pelagius distinguished between God justifying men and men justifying themselves, as two ways of salvation.

4) Pelagius was inconsistent.

5) Pelagius himself wasn’t a ‘Pelagian,’ and the Pelagian error was either a misunderstanding or the fault of his disciples, not himself.”

Turretinfan, 7/17/2011

First notice that TF offers these interpretations without bothering to read the wider text. Next, lets go through the options he offers. #1 is obviously too crass to do any work. #4 is possible but it seems strange that in the entire history of criticism of Pelagius’ theology no one seems to have made this charge, including none of the Reformers and the Confessional Protestant tradition up to our own time. #4 is therefore improbable or at least implausible. #5 is possible and some scholars take this argumentative route, but there are a few things to note. First, they actually make arguments based on Pelagius’ texts and the interactions with Augustine. Second, Pelagius’ language of “faith alone” does not seem to play a substantial role or any role in this line of argumentation. This likely wouldn’t be the case if he were anywhere near the Reformation understanding of that phrase. #3 would require an actual argument based on Pelagius’ text, which at the time TF hadn’t read. Moreover in my reading Pelagius views these alternatives in terms of men justifying themselves apart from the Gospel (Judaism) and  being “justified by faith alone” in the context of the Gospel or New Covenant. So TF’s way of divvying up the matter won’t get us at Pelagius’ problematic meaning. #2 begs the question because it requires a definition of grace that Pelagius would reject and besides, the definition of grace that this trades on is not going to be an attitudinal or taxonomic relation between God and an individual human agent. But #2 does get us closer to Pelagius’ thought in that it gets us in the ballpark of what postlapsarian human nature can do assisted only extrinsically. But this is consistent with the language of “justified by faith alone” because justification before God was in terms of faith as a condition, which men could meet, over against Mosaic observance. Thus it is entirely possible to use the language of “justified by faith alone” and not express the Reformation view. This is why the anti-Pelagian synods condemned the idea that salvation could come through the saying of a prayer. (See Council of Orange, Canon 3) What is more, it is entirely possible to alter Pelagius’ system in terms of a more Augustinian view and still retain the language of “justified by faith alone” and not express the Reformation view as is evidenced by such figures as Thomas Aquinas.  Other theological models are also consistent with the usage of that language. And this point seems lost on TF, namely that the mere occurrence of the phrase in any patristic text is not sufficient to demonstrate that they express the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. To admit this is just to concede the argumentative real estate that his other proof texts are occupying.

Next up, we have Dr. Kenneth Talbot, President of Whitefield Theological Seminary located in Lakeland, Florida. Granted that this is an unaccredited school, but it does apparently claim some notable Reformed alumni such as Gary DeMar, Kenneth Gentry, George Grant, Keith Mathison, John Frame, and R. C. Sproul, Sr. (And lest one be dismissive of its unaccredited status, just keep in mind that James White received his doctorate degree from a similar unaccredited school.)

In any case, Dr. Talbot cites the usual florilegium including part of the Pseudo-Jeromian text. This article was published in 2011 and the usual patristic citations even appear in the same general order that we’ve seen in other presentations. As an aside, it was because this same florilegium was making the rounds why in 2010 I published some quotes from Pelagius’ commentary on Romans. In any case, it seems Dr. Talbot simply copy pasted these quotes with no verification and no analysis offered.

Much, if not all of the florilegium of texts were produced by the well-known Presbyterian critic of Catholicism, David T. King, of King and Webster fame.  And sure enough, Mr. King also cites Pelagius’ text as expressing the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. A few tidbits here. The first instance of Mr. King posting this material that I can find is 2004. This seems to be the locus of Bugay and other users of it. But Mr. King does not tell us where he found the text. If he had found it in Patrologia Latina, he should have seen the advisement by the editors indicating that this work was probably not from Jerome, but from Pelagius. Note that this advisement was made in the middle of the 19th century. So it is likely that Mr. King himself cribbed this text from some unknown source all without ever bothering to check the reference. It is likely that it was taken from some post 1850 source, as the citation utilizes the Patrologia Latina reference. So whomever initially cited the text ignored or overlooked the editor’s advisement and Mr. King perpetuated their error. Even as late as 2018, Mr. King is still posting essentially the same list which includes the text from Pelagius. So in a decade and a half, he never seems to have taken the time to check the reference even after he was aware that the text was actually from Pelagius as you can see from his remarks in the comments section on TF’s page. There is a term that captures a deficiency in honesty that I will refrain from utilizing here.

As far as Reformation sources go, there is one more notable Reformed figure who cites this text as form Jerome, in order to prove that the early Church taught the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. Dr. Michael S. Horton, who is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary also mistakenly, cites this passage.  In his two

Dr. Michael Horton, Machen Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology @ Westminster Theological Seminary

volume work on justification (2018), He writes, “Jerome himself says that ‘God justifies by faith alone’ (Deus ex sola fide justificat).” (Vol. 1, page 80.) He then goes on to cite the Patrologia Latina reference of  “(PL 30:692D)”, though unlike Rogers and others he does update from Roman numerical subscription to contemporary (Caput X.v.3, to, 10.3). (See Vol. 1, page 80, ftnt., 28). Apparently Dr. Horton also ripped this text either from some internet florilegium like David King’s or from some other third and unnamed source, never bothering to check the reference. For once again, if he had, it would have been plain to him that even as late as 1850, this text was strongly suspected of being of Pelagian origin, or outright designated as such, and not an authentic work of Jerome. And that leaves untouched the longer history of characterizing the work as Pelagian going back to the sixth century.

One would think that a scholar of Dr. Horton’s stature would not make this mistake. After all, he holds the Machen chair of apologetics at Westminster Seminary. But from my experience, this is not surprising. My own personal experience with Dr. Horton in the early 1990’s was that in interacting with Dr. Bahnsen and other Theonomists and Presuppositionalists, he could be, shall

we say, less than fair in how he utilized sources. This also tended to be the case in dealing with Catholic sources, specifically Aquinas or the Scholastics in general.  I’ve seen the same practices of lifting material form secondary sources in more recent works of his in discussing Orthodox theology. Granted, he documents the citations, but if you’re lifting citations from secondary works and not doing the research in the primary sources yourself or at the very least verifying the material, this can be problematic. (And I have no way to know if he verified it in the primary source or not.) So, while when I knew Mike he was a very amicable fellow, I am not surprised that he fell into this error.  In fact, his entire chapter on justification in the ancient church seems to be cobbled together from proof texts from secondary sources. One would think that a major academic work on the topic would devote some serious analysis and more space to actually proving that the patristic figures expressed what the Reformers had in mind. Without that actual demonstrative work, all we are left with is seeing words on a page that offer no support for the Protestant position. I mean, can’t we get just one patristic text that is analyzed and so proves that one father expressed the concept of Sola Fide?

In the interests of fairness though, Protestants aren’t the only ones who have made this mistake. At least two Catholic sources online fall into citing the text. The first is the Catholic World Report, as late as September of 2020. Ironically, they not only didn’t bother to check the reference in the Patrologia Latina, but they even link to and cite TurretinFan’s post and they didn’t seem to bother to read the comments where a Catholic individual outed the text as from Pelagius!

Not to be left without mention is Catholic apologist, Dr. Taylor Marshall who in reacting to

Dr. Taylor Marshall, Catholic Apologist

Protestant apologists in 2009 using this text, cites it and then attempts to give a Catholic interpretation of it, all the while thinking it is from St. Jerome. Dr. Taylor didn’t seem to bother to go and look at the reference in Patrologia Latina. If he had, his argumentative load would have been much lighter.

V.  Quick Takeaways

Before I get to the expansion of the argument, there are some quick takeaways here, largely related to methodology. First up is, always check the reference. Always. When you do, make sure you read a fair amount of the primary source so that you can get a sense of the thought of the person. If at all possible read the entire work and some secondary literature along with it. Second, look past the mere terms used and look for contextual clues to discern the meaning or possible meanings. This can be difficult if one is unfamiliar with the historical period and how people thought about a given topic, let alone how their language actually functioned.

Third, what much of the above shows is that to demonstrate that a given patristic figure held or expressed a specific view, particularly a wide-reaching soteriological view, really requires an analysis of their whole corpus, along with their historical context.  Presenting individual quotes divorced from how these statements function in their overall understanding of matters does no actual work. Taking the material from Pelagius makes this point very nicely. Divorced from their context and the overall thought and all attributions removed, people completely misinterpret them. Consequently, no one should be moved to change their position on the basis of a simple presentation of quotes.

VI. The Main Event

Apart from handing out platters of crow for Protestants to gobble down, what is the argumentative value of this “solafidian” language in Pelagius and the history of its misinterpretation?

Dinner is served.

The first thing of value is that the Pelagian text seems perspicuous or clear. That is after all why Protestants have used the text. It seems to clearly express the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. After all, “faith alone” is right there…in the Latin even! So when encountering Protestants using this text, it is instructive prior to the “big reveal” to ask if they think the text is clear, and just how clear is it? Slightly clear? Moderately clear? Exceptionally clear? And then of course it turns out that it clearly doesn’t mean what they claim it does.

And this is the problem with appeals to clarity. Clear to whom? Here I do not mean to express some form of relativism nor does it follow from anything I have written. Rather, appeals to clarity depend in part on the clarity of the mind of the reader. Here Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s remark rings true.

A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg,

Talk of clarity is usually a report of how a text strikes the mind of a person. But there is no inference from, such and so strikes me this way, to, it is this way. Much the same problem afflicted claims to “self-evident truths.” Self-evident to whom?  Again, this is not relativism. It is simply to note that on the truth of epistemic realism that just because something seems clear to you, it does not follow that it is. Realism entails the possibility of error and the need for justification.

Consequently, the Pelagian texts function to undermine Protestant claims of perspicuity. After all, how much clearer could “Jerome”, uh, Pelagius be? According to a Protestant reader what else would we need to add to this or any other text from Pelagius that speaks of justification by faith alone for those texts to express Sola Fide? Why were they ever so “clear” and “plain” before they knew it was written by Pelagius, but now it isn’t? The change has not occurred in the text, but in the head of the reader. As I used to tell my undergraduate students when reading Kant, Kant is very clear. They would complain that Kant was very unclear in his writing. And I would say, “No, Kant is exceptionally clear. The problem is that you are exceptionally unclear, which is why Kant is difficult for you.”

Nor will it do any work to fall back to the apparent clarity or claimed correctness of the Reformers and their theology. After all, isn’t that the claim of the Reformation, that wide sections of the church, including many competent readers of the biblical languages, seriously misread the “clear” texts of scripture for centuries on the point upon which the church stands or falls? If that is possible, then it is entirely possible that the same thing could have occurred with respect to the Reformers. You can’t admit the possibility of the first and deny the possibility of the latter. In this way, such an appeal merely moves the question, it does not address it, nor does it show that the reasoning I offer is mistaken.

We can generalize from Pelagius usage to other texts. Since the mere use of the phrase, within the context of Pauline language does not express Sola Fide, it is entirely possible that the same is true for any other patristic text. Remember, Pelagius is writing at a time when there is a flurry of Latin commentaries on the Pauline corpus being produced, and a pre-existing substantial Greek language commentary tradition. This means that many of the proffered proof texts come from about the same period and in many cases, the same language in which Pelagius wrote. Even in the case of Greek writers, if it is possible to use the language of “faith alone” with respect to justification in Latin without expressing the Protestant concept of Sola Fide, there is no principled reason why it can also not be done in Greek. This is because semantics outruns syntax.

Consequently, the same point can be consistently raised for any patristic text brought forward. It does not matter if it is from Basil or Chrysostom or any other figure. If it is possible to use the language of “justified by faith alone” without expressing the Protestant concept of Sola Fide, then it has to be proven that any text with those terms or phrases expresses that doctrine. To do that, one has to lay out the conceptual constituents or parts of the larger concept and then show how those conceptual constituents are exhibited or expressed by a given author. (This by the way is called analysis, not deconstruction.) Only then will we be in a position to know that a given text expresses the Protestant doctrine. This is precisely the work I attempted to do in my livestream, as you can see here in this snippet. I attempt to lay out the conceptual parts of the idea of Sola Fide and then go look at the proposed texts to see if they exhibit any or all of those conceptual parts.

One of the reason why people often mistakenly find such quotations persuasive is because they are not aware of the conceptual or interpretative possibilities of a given biblical text. They simply can’t imagine how else the surface grammar of the text might be understood and then give up the ghost and concede that the burden of proof has been met. And here, historical theology is especially useful. By studying how various figures in history understood the same Biblical text, you can see a range of interpretative options. And the farther they are apart in history, the more likely it is that they have different philosophical and theological interpretive grids that they bring to the text and so yield different interpretations. This is why many years ago when I looked at the texts that the various figures above presented (King, Bugay, et al.) I was unpersuaded because there was no argument presented to demonstrate that the texts were expressing that specific concept and because I could see other conceptual possibilities, particularly ones in that historical time period from which the quotes were taken.

But we can take the point even further. Recall that Mr. Rogers for instance has complained that I haven’t dealt with the biblical case for Sola Fide. With respect to my interactions with him, that much is true. But on the contrary, he presented his patristic case in separate videos. I took up the task of answering those videos. For the task I took up, I met his arguments head on and carried my burden of proof, quite kindly and politely I might add. Also, Rogers himself divvies up the case for Sola Fide between scriptural and patristic witness. But the more important point here is the use I can make of this point about Pelagius’ text and its blatant misinterpretation with respect to any biblical case for Sola Fide as well.

All sides agree that the patristic texts are not materially inspired texts, materially on par with Scripture. So what we have is a case where Protestants have consistently misinterpreted this text of Pelagius, because in part they thought it was from Jerome. But if patristic texts are not inspired, then so much the more is the text of a condemned heretic like Pelagius lower down on the normative food chain, and by lower down, I mean zero. But if Rogers, Bugay, TF, Horton, along with Luther, Melancthon and others, can consistently misread and misinterpret this supposedly clear text which is not inspired and not normative, then it is all the more possible for them to do so with inspired texts of Scripture. After all, a different text doesn’t alter the epistemic abilities of the reader.

Notice that the Pelagian text is formally clearer than texts of scripture, for scripture never uses the phrase “justified by faith alone” in a positive sense. Here my point is not to make an argument that because scripture doesn’t do so that it doesn’t express Sola Fide. Nor is my point in any way to suggest or imply that what Pelagius expresses is true. My point rather is that the Pelagian text utilizes more formal or technically precise language. This is one of the reasons why it was attractive to Luther and later Reformation figures, even up to our own time. It is why they used it. But even with that more formal language, it was possible to not only misinterpret it, but to grossly misinterpret it. So here the generalization of the issue becomes clear. If that is true for that ancient text, it is in principle true for all other ecclesial texts. And if it is true for uninspired texts, it is so much the more the case for Scriptural texts as well. After all, Pelagius is by and large simply following Pauline language.

Consequently, this problem re-centers both the burden of proof but also the kind of work that needs to be done with respect to both patristic and biblical texts. One has to lay out the conceptual parts of Sola Fide and then go to the text and show how they are being expressed. And this includes laying out the other conceptual components that may not be part of Sola Fide but are required for Sola Fide to work, such as a very specific theory of what constitutes law and legal taxonomies. And what is more, legality and forensic are not necessarily co-extensive or identical ideas. Something can be legal without being forensic and vice versa. How these two relate depends on which theory of law one is working with.

And this gets us to another part of the problem. The Pelagian texts make it clear that what is in part occurring is that people are bringing certain philosophical and theological assumptions to that text and then interpreting it within that philosophical-theological framework. It is the only way they could possibly get the idea that the text was expressing the Protestant doctrine in the first place. This is why once you reveal who the real author is, their judgment changes and usually not without some initial incredulity and grasping at straws to avoid doing so. The text itself doesn’t change. The reader is interpreting the data according to his presuppositions about the text. And this brings us to another point. There is no theologically neutral way to approach a given text. You’d think for advocates of Presuppositional apologetics I would not have to make this point. The problem for those more Evidentialist minded persons will be to explain why readers got the interpretation of a supposedly perspicuous text wrong in the first place, given that no fact of the text has changed.

What then does the work to change their mind? Well, exactly the kind of work that most people on the other side of these discussions attempt to do. You have to take the quotes within the soteriological framework of the author to get at the meaning of the author. This is one reason why I and others should not have to argue that Pelagius is not expressing the Protestant doctrine. Given what we know about Pelagius’ teaching, it should be, (oh, whats the word?)  obvious or rather perspicuous that he simply doesn’t mean what the Reformers meant even if you don’t know what he meant by that specific phrase. The only way around that is to take up the revisionist project of showing that not only the Orthodox and Catholic adjudication of Pelagius’ theology was wrong, but that the Reformation reading of it was also wrong and that he is in fact expressing the Reformation view

or something sufficiently close to it. Best of luck with that project. Besides, such a project completely undermines the entire case for the material cause of the Reformation-there never was a Pelagian bugaboo on such a view. In any case, this is why non-Protestants are exactly right to point to material that contextualizes usage when considering texts from Chrysostom, Victorinus, Basil, and others and why claims of evasion by Protestant interlocutors when the former does so is entirely misplaced.

One might think, as James White for example seems to, that one can simply do exegesis directly without bringing any philosophical-theological framework to the text. He seems to think that you can do exegesis and then do all that “philosophical speculative stuff” later. But this simply impossible and it is so in part because our understanding of language and how it works itself ranges across different and competing theories of language and meaning. How do I interpret a text without some view of how meaning and language work? And which understanding should I have and use? Is there some paradigm neutral or better yet, Christologically neutral view of language to be had ab initio? And lest one be tempted to think that this is inane philosophical thinking, what constitutes typology and how that works has substantial Christological import. Just go ask Theodore of Mopsuestia and Cyril of Alexandria. Which option you choose determines what Christology you are going to get out of a biblical text. Here humanist assumptions are laid bare.

It is also impossible because one brings an army of assumptions about the nature of reality and other matters to the text even beyond considerations on the nature of language. This is not to say that texts do not have an objective meaning that can be discerned. Here by objective I mean to deny Idealism and so nothing here should be taken to advocate or express some form of Idealism. It is just to say that on some form of (critical) realism, there is epistemic distance from the meaning of the text, which is precisely why people can get the meaning of a text wrong, and yet there is no theory neutral access to that texts’ intended meaning. 

These features explain well why people read the Pelagian texts the way they did and why they shift their interpretation of the text once the author has been revealed or why, like Mr. Rogers, they absurdly double down taking Pelagian texts as more evidence of Sola Fide in the early Church. Rogers simply chooses to reinterpret the data according to his framework, rather than give up the data as supporting his framework, in full Quinean fashion.

Willard van Orman Quine

 The important point here is to notice that he makes this move not only against his own Reformed tradition, but he does so without argument. He provides no demonstration that Pelagius was in fact expressing the Protestant concept. Mr. Rogers is a perfect example of the old joke that John Warwick Montgomery used to tell about the man who thought he was dead. No matter what people tried to tell him, he thought he was dead. So, his family took him to a coroner. The coroner performed a simple test, pricking corpse after corpse with a pin, after which no blood flowed. Finally the man says that he is convinced that dead humans do not bleed. Then the coroner picks his arm and blood flows, the man exclaims in astonishment, “Dead men bleed after all!”

The above is the reason why it was instructive to look at the patristic material first because that way we can see a few things. First, we can get clear on what the concept of Sola Fide in fact is. Second, by knowing what its conceptual constituents are, we can then discern whether patristic texts in fact express it or not. And the same practice can and should be used when looking at the biblical texts. What is more, we can see by the use and misuse of the Pelagian texts, how the meaning of a text can appear to us to be so very obvious, when it is not obvious and our interpretation is not only wrong, but diametrically opposed to the meaning the text possesses. Consequently, this should instill a good deal of epistemic humility, especially in our Protestant interlocutors. (It never ceases to amaze me that those people who cry the loudest that there can be no infallible interpretations of scripture are the ones who act as if they have them.) More directly though, the fundamental lesson is, that by looking at how easy it was to misinterpret a seemingly clear text like Pelagius and supposedly find there a very precise and refined concept expressed, it is just as easy to misinterpret biblical texts and think they too express that very narrowly refined concept. This is why it was instructive to look at the patristic material first prior to looking at the biblical material. By doing so, we have a clear case of Protestants, at the time of the Reformation and now reading into a text a meaning that simply wasn’t there with respect to justification. What has to be done is that the concept has to be analyzed into its constituents and then we need to see if a text expresses those. And that means it is going to be much more difficult to show that this very precisely defined concept is expressed by biblical texts. Prooftexing isn’t going to cut it.

If I had tried to make these same points about biblical material without considering how Protestants have eisegeted ecclesial texts, then I would have been accused of evasion and grasping at straws. The case would not have been able to cross enemy lines, an epistemic spearhead so to speak, in the heads of my Protestant listeners. But given that it is an unmovable fact that Protestants have seriously misread an apparently clear text and misconstrued the plain sense of it to justify the doctrine of Sola Fide it becomes all that much more clear that it is entirely possible and in fact plausible that Protestants do the same with Biblical texts as well. They have after all done it with these texts of Pelagius for 500 years and running.

In this way then, the above case opens the conceptual space to see other interpretative possibilities of biblical texts that are more fine grained and so fall between the dichotomies that the Reformers and contemporary Protestants wish to foist onto the minds of their listeners.

Lastly, in my reading of the primary and secondary sources regarding this text, I have never come across any other historical source or contemporary academic who makes this argument. I am doubtful that I am the first to make such a point, so I am very interested if readers know of any historical figure or scholar who has made this same point utilizing the texts of Pelagius. The only other person I have ever known to do so is my old friend Bill Zuck. May his memory be eternal.

2 comments

  1. The problem with the non-verification of sources in both Catholics and Protestants mentioned in this post is probably because they lack competence in Latin.

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  2. Henricque, Do they lack competence in Google? As I noted, I posted the Pelagian texts over a decade ago. Besides, if they had looked in PL, they would have at least seen the Advisement and seen the name “Pelagius” mentioned there numerous times. That should have set off red flags. If they were familiar with the Latin commentary tradition on Romans this would not have been an issue.

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