St. Clement of Rome (AD 35-99) and the Gift of Justification by Faith apart from Works

In a recent video released on YouTube channel Truth Unto Godliness (a wonderful name for a show), the host of the show together with another YouTuber The Other Paul (presumably, from the Apostle Paul?), gave a brief exposition of the early Pope St. Clement I’s famous letter to the Corinthian community. I listened to this because I’ve become acquainted with the host of the show and we’ve been able to achieve a very gracious correspondence for quite some time now. The Other Paul seems to be an up and coming researcher into early Christianity and has devoted his time to its research. In the show, they interact with an article St. Clement of Rome: Soteriology and Ecclesiology written by the well known Catholic apologist Dr. Bryan Cross and seek to refute its contents. In that article, I myself am found making a comment on October 15th, 2012 giving a major objection to Dr. Cross’s attempt to show that St. Clement’s teaching on justification (paragraph 32 of his epistle to Corinth). This objection that I had given came up in Truth Unto Godliness‘s exposition and it marks a point of interest since I am now a Catholic who has abandoned by former beliefs on the doctrine of justification as well as corrected some of my false views about the Catholic view of justification. I thought it would be worth the time to give my thoughts on this, though I should say that this is by no means an extensive paper on the matter. I plan to release a book on the issue of justification soon enough entitled The Just Shall Live By Faith: Examining the Justification Debate between Catholics and Protestants from Paul’s Epistle to Rome. The reader should look forward to that for some more mature thoughts on the matter.

Let’s look at the most important section of Clement’s letter on the issue of justification:

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

Now, this can get very dense very quickly, and so I warn the reader who has spent a great deal of time on this that I will be giving a very shortened explanation. At least, enough to give an explanation for the public citation of my objection to Dr. Cross.

The truth here is that, like many of the statements in the Church Fathers, not least Holy Scripture, either a Protestant or a Catholic interpretation is possible. If you spend enough time wrestling in theological debates, you learn to realize the relative flexibility of words by their various meanings, shades, emphases, and whatever else could be elastic about them. With enough etymological grease and a working tool set for argumentation, the possibilities that exist to make things *compatible* or *fitting* become surprisingly enormous. If you don’t believe this, just spend time sitting across the table with the most well-trained linguists and theologians from various Christian backgrounds.

This means that when someone gives enough study to a piece of literature, such as this paragraph from St. Clement, you will find that the preferable interpretation(s) you come to will have gone through testing a number of possibilities after which a few (or perhaps, if you are lucky, just 1) interpretations are highlighted as far more reasonable and persuasive in place of the other possible alternatives. It is rather rare to have all possible interpretations dwindle into irrationality except for one single interpretation which alone hits the spot. If that happens, then you have a rather easy passage.

When speaking with Protestants, it is not very worth-while, in my opinion, to do as many Catholic apologists do which is to, a priori, completely kill the capacity of epistemic certainty such that the only thing left to do is trust in the authority of the Church. Such a tactic can be extremely off-putting. What happens when you do come across a passage which reason so strongly favors X and the interlocutor insists that it is ≠ X because of some power that is irrelevant to the data?

In this passage from Clement, the prima facie reading allows for both a Protestant and a Catholic interpretation, and it will require further testing in order to decipher which of the two wins the exegetical competition (and here, I realize this is done pre-maturely in the English without arguing the Greek syntax). However, the host and The Other Paul asserted that the Catholic view is incompatible (unless I misunderstood) with the Catholic doctrine of human justification. Therefore, I will first have to address this and show that Clement and Catholicism are compatible. However, since showing raw compatibility still does not amount to being persuasive or achieving the probable meaning or interpretation of Clement, I will have to, thereafter, show why it is both compatible with Catholicism and then speak to which of the two, the Catholic or Protestant view of justification, is more in harmony with Clement. Or, which one reason supports more over the other.

Is Clement’s statement compatible with Catholicism? Well, first we have to ask what is meant by justification in Catholic doctrine? Without giving a robust definition (for which one would need a whole book to do), it is well worth distinguishing two aspects of justification: the act of justification and the habit of justification. Or, active justification (actus iustificationis) versus habitual justification (habitus iustificationis). Active justification is that single momentary event where an Adamic human being is translated into Christic humanity such that he is regenerated from the first human race to the 2nd human race. This act of justification is the primary meaning of justification, and it is not at all progressive. It happens in an instant. In the New Testament, particularly in Paul, this is what is meant by the word “justified”: one is declared to be in upright standing before God as a result of this translation from Adam to Christ. It is almost always in the past tense. For example: “Therefore, having now been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1). Paul is not talking about a progressive reality that is happening anew each day. He is referring to the moment where someone entered the realm of grace (when we “first believed” (Rom 13:11)) and which effects the ongoing present. The word “saved” is also used in this sense. For example, Paul says, “he saved us, not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Tit. 3:7). Notice the past tense. this is speaking to the past and it is speaking to an action of translation from one state to another, in this case from the state of being lost to the state of being saved. It just so happens that St. Clement, too, is speaking justification in the past tense, i.e., an act which happened in the past and which effected some sort of transition or translation.

Now, the habit of justification or habitual justification is the permanent state unto which the act of justification ushers the human being into. This habit is a state, and not an act. In habitual justification, the human being has an ontological change in that the virtues of faith, hope, and love are infused into the soul. In consequence of this infusion, the intellect and the will of the human is raised unto God (what Paul calls being “alive to God”) and prepared for a holy fruit-bearing life (Rom 7:5-6).

It is important to understand however, that both active and habitual justification occur prior to any human action whereby a good work is performed. It is not as if by faith, hope, and love being infused, that this means a good work is immediately performed. On the contrary, infants who have the infusion of these virtues don’t have the opportunity for years to execute a good work of faith, hope, or charity. Nevertheless, the form of justice that is made up of these virtues is nonetheless there in the soul, making it pure in the sight of God. Moreover, the Council of Trent, as does the Patristic tradition, teaches plainly that no one can perform good works to merit this translation from Adam to Christ. Just like a human being is born *apart from their will* (to get close to Clement’s exclusion of human willing), let alone their meritorious good deeds (for which they don’t even exist to perform!), so also a human being is not re-born by the force of their will or meritorious good deeds.

In fact, it would be helpful to understand just how workless the Catholic understands the meritorious cause of justification to be. In Romans 5, Paul not only says that humanity in Christ is justified *as a gift*, but also reaches back to show how the soteriological gift of human justification is parallel with the anthropological fall of human condemnation by the work of Adam. Just like the original condemnation of humanity was completely merited by the sole work of Adam, so also the restoring justification of humanity was completely merited by the sole work of the 2nd Adam. In this case, we can speak of a condemnation apart from works, let alone a justification apart from works. The Council of Trent, therefore, is keen to say that the *meritorious cause* of justification lie strictly and exclusively in the blood of Jesus Christ. Humanity, as the Fathers teach, and which St. Anselm only inherited, owes God an infinite debt for its failure to love Him above all things. Humanity, as Trent says, can neither by the force of will, faith, or obedience to God’s law, ever produce the merit to pay off this debt nor win back the gift of original righteousness from the Garden of Eden. Only an infinite gift can win this for us, and that is the sweet-smelling aroma of Christ’s sacrificial death in the presence of God on Golgotha.

Now, this above is the objective accomplishment of justification: the cross of Christ. But what we are speaking to, with St. Clement, is the manner in which that justification is subjectively appropriated by the individual. Catholic theology, once again, is adamant to assert that the act of justification, that is the “washing of regeneration” (Tit. 3:7), or the translation from Adam to Christ, is a supernatural rebirth that takes no value from the human being for its effectiveness. It is, according to Trent, a gift of free grace. The form of justification is the total remission of sins (the debt is paid) and the interior renewal of the soul (or sanctification). And by this “renewal”, we do not mean works. It simply means that the essence of original sin, which is the disorder of the soul that renders the passions (Rom 7:4-5) as dominant over the intellect, is undone. That means that the mind is enlightened and the intellect and will of the human is ordered back appropriately to God. Once again, this is not a good work, but is simply the nature of regeneration, an action that happens to the human, rather than from the human.

So, if we take this above definition of justification, can we say that it is compatible with what Clement says? Well, what does Clement say? He says that human beings are justified apart from their own will, their own wisdom, their own understanding, their own godliness, and lastly from their own works “wrought in holiness of heart”. That accords precisely with what the Council of Trent says in the 6th session: “but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification”. In other words, even faith is excluded from meriting the translation from Adam to Christ, let alone works. That means we can exclude every other virtue, including fides caritate formata (faith formed by love). None of this comes to pay for the act of justification.

Now, the question is this : what consists in this act of justification? What happens by the action? Protestants have a theology of union with Christ, which also gets back to this notion of translation from Adam to Christ, and they, too, believe that unionization with the 2nd Adam is the larger structure, and that only within this much larger structure is there the sub-structure of justification sola fide (by faith alone) among other necessary sub-structures (such as adoption, sanctification, glorification, et cetera). Nevertheless, in the gift of justification, the Protestants understands that what is effected is simply and purely an extrinsic imputation of the alien righteousness of God or Christ. Consequently, justification is purely forensic and simply says that the sinner is fully pardoned from his sin and stands legally recognized as having lived a perfect life because Christ’s life is imputed to him (that is typical). In Catholic theology, we , too, believe that justification involves negative and positive elements. The negative is the remission of sins, and positively the interior rectification of the intellect and will (i.e., being sanctified). Again, both of these realities are not a human work, but are rather something done to the human.

We are here reaching the end of the first objective: is St. Clement’s statement on justification compatible with the Catholic doctrine, thus defined? Absolutely. Even the reality of being infused with fides caritate formata or divine agape (love) , as we saw in the case of infants, is not a productive good work of the human being, but is rather a production of grace that this being acted upon the baptized human being. Clement can be thought of as simply saying that human beings are forgiven and positionally sanctified apart from any works of their own, including works done from faith or love, because this gift is an ontological change that the human does not produce! These supernatural gifts come and cloth the person in the bath of regeneration, and are true before any good works are done. That solves the compatibility question.

The next thing to deal with is whether this interpretation is preferable to the way in which Truth Unto Godliness and The Other Paul interpret it. Protestants, as I’ve alluded, also teach that man is justified by faith apart from any works that merit the gift. Very clearly, St. Clement’s passage is compatible with that (and here, we are strictly speaking of paragraph 32). One thing that the Protestant has going for them is the subsequent statements of St. Clement. This makes up the rationale I had given against Dr. Cross back in 2012, and it parallels so well, as I said back then, with the shift between Romans 3-5 and Romans 6-8. There Paul talks about the free gift of justification apart from works, and then he asks the rhetorical question, “Shall we not continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1), unto which Paul comes around and gives a resounding “Certainly Not!” because, as the Protestant readers, there is this additional gift of necessary sanctification that is essentially distinct from justification but is no less present in a person truly saved. Therefore, freedom to sin is impossible. St. Clement too seems to follow this after his statements on justification:

What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work.”

So here, it sounds like St. Clement is doing something that a Protestant would typically see in the transition from chapter 5 to chapter 6 in Romans. Why would St. Clement feel the need to ask the rhetorical question, “Shall we continue to sin” if he did not think what he had just said lends towards that kind of conclusion? It seems reasonable to say that St. Clement had just said that salvation (forgiveness/justification) is completely workless, and faith is an empty worthless instrument through which to receive it. If St. Clement says this, it is reasonable to follow it up with, “Shall we continue in sin since nothing we do merits justification?” Indeed, it is reasonable. However, there are two points to make that severely undermine it.

First, Paul’s rhetorical question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound” does not follow a previous statement about the completely free and forensic justification in Christ. Rather, what he says is as follows:

Now the law was added so that the trespass might increase so that just as sin reigned in death, so grace might reign to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? (Rom 5:21-6:1)

In other words, the Jewish interlocutor would have looked at what Paul just said about “the law” (The Sinai code) and how it was used, ironically by the law-giver, in order to “increase the trespass” (i.e., that more transgressions would abound) only to further serve the grander purpose of being followed up by the intervention of grace. That almost sounds like God has set up this deal to increase trespasses in order to increase grace. And *this* is why Paul asks, “Shall we continue in sin”? It is very similar to Romans 3 where Paul asserts how our sin justifies God when he judges, and then the virtual Jewish interlocutor objects, “But if our injustice demonstrates the justice of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath?” (Rom 3:5) and “And why not say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’?” (Rom 3:8). Going back to Romans 6, Paul is answering the Jewish interlocutor who objects to what Paul just said the Mosaic law served to do: increase trespasses for the sake of increasing grace. And notice how Paul responds: “Sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under the law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). In other words, it is the “grace” of the one man itself that carries the rationale for why one can’t continue in sin, and that grace was nothing other than the “gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17) from the 2nd Adam. It is not as if a distinct gift had to be added to justification (the separate system of necessary sanctification) to procure the inability to continue in sin. Rather, it is the fact that being under grace itself provides that rationale: justification releases men from sin’s power, for whoever has died has been “justified” from sin (Rom 6:7). The alternative would be to see the Greek (Karis) for “grace” in Romans 5:2, 15, 17, 20, 21; 6:1, and 14 to be relating to a dual gift of justification and sanctification. However, it is more likely Paul means here the single grace of justification, and that single grace itself (per Rom 6:14) already contains the mechanical disallowance of sin’s continuance.

Therefore, the transition from Rom 5:21 to Rom 6:1 is not a workable parallel for what St. Clement himself might be doing. Now, St. Clement might be going from a workless forensic/extrinsic justification to suggesting that thought this is true we still have to show forth the fruit of other graces that God gives us. But Paul doesn’t seem to provide a paradigm for this in Romans 5-6. He does not speak of a two-fold, co-existing, or necessarily side-by-side graces of justification and sanctification. Rather, just like in Romans 8:1-5, the very grace of Christ came to accomplish what the law could not do in that it was weak in the flesh, so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk in the Spirit. Romans 6-8 is just a further unpacking of the “gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17).

Secondly, another passage in 1 Clement cites Paul’s epistle to Romans and urges that the forgiveness of sins, or the non-imputation of sins (Rom 4:6-8), comes as a result of obedience and “love”. He writes:

Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandments of God in the harmony of love; that so through love our sins may be forgiven us. For it is written, Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not impute to him, and in whose mouth there is no guile. This blessedness comes upon those who have been chosen by God through Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

In this passage, we see that Clement says that through “αγαπης” (love) comes the forgiveness of sins. Love here is explained as the moral conduct of keeping God’s commandments. However, “love” might be a reference to the inward virtue that is augmented and increased through command-keeping. It is more likely that the interior virtue of αγαπης is what is understood to cover the sins of an individual. In any case, this passage is rather important since it is a reference to Rom. 4:6-8 where Paul is right in the midst of teaching his doctrine of justification by faith apart from works. However, why is “love” rather than “faith” being used? It is a rather puzzling passage.

Does the forgiveness here refer to the big entrance remission of sins that Peter preached about on Pentecost (Acts 2:38) and which David speaks about in Psalm 32? Commentators have said that Psalm 32 is a reference to David’s own repentance, in which case it would be a conversion to God after having already walked with God. In any case, it would be odd that St. Clement would be urging his readers to seek for that act of justification which occurs either at baptismal regeneration or through post-initial conversion penance, since those events are not expected to occur frequently. St. Clement is thus referring to the ongoing need of forgiveness throughout our lives, perhaps venial sins. In either case, it is αγαπης which covers these sins. This seems to support the view that interior virtues and the gift of justification (reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sin and being renewed in our minds as “alive unto God”) can have a relationship of cause and effect, in some sense. In that case, we have here a few ounces to add to the scales that tip St. Clement further in the direction of the historic Catholic or Orthodox position on justification.

Now, a Protestant can still pull out the grease and the tool kit. By rearranging the elements of cause and necessary consequence, the Protestant can just say that αγαπης is a necessary consequence from faith, and so while faith alone is the causing principle, αγαπης can be a necessarily associated attribute of the forgiven man. Therefore, while αγαπης is being spoken of as the instrumental cause, it is merely an association to the real instrumental cause, sola fide. This would be supported especially since Paul says in that very epistle: “Just as God speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6-7).

However, while that can technically hold up, it is rather straining from the clearer message if we just take αγαπης as the inward virtue that serves as an instrumental cause in the *increase* of justification that happens throughout our lives. And here, the *increase* of justification is the increase of habitual justification through good works. That seems to jive quite nicely with St. Clement.

Now, if we return to paragraph 32, and see that either the Catholic or the Protestant interpretation of justification can fit nicely with what is said, it is other statements, not least (but primarily) this extra on αγαπης and the non-imputation of sin, that tips the favor in the direction of Catholic doctrine rather than Protestant doctrine. Now, there were some objections to this idea of paragraph 32 being in any way compatible with Catholicism because “works wrought in holiness of heart” are excluded. But if we just re-read what I’ve written above, the infusion event of the act of justification (which sometimes people call “initial” justification but that isn’t always helpful since “saved” is also past tense and can refer to a momentary from the lost-state to the saved-state but we don’t typically speak of “initial salvation”) does not include the working out of any behavioral activities. It is the implantation of faith, hope, and love, thereby making the soul ordered back to God. Just this alone, whether it is the infant who can’t work, or the thief on the cross who had no chance to work, this infusion effect the forgiveness of sins and makes the soul pleasing to God.

One should also recognize that it was standard belief that repentance would have to be coupled with faith in order for someone to be justified or forgiven before God. Thus the Lord says in Ezekiel 18:21-22:

But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.”

We all understand the standard idea in Protestant soteriology of situating all these necessary gifts such as repentance, hope, charity/love, mercy, perseverance, et cetera, as related to justification in some sense, except for the strict causative relation, however that is just simply not the only way to configure the data. Faith, absolutely all by itself, is the intellect assenting to divine truths revealed by God. It can exist in the most evil beings that God ever created: the fallen angels (James 2). We could have another dispute on whether the Lutheran conception of a “repentant faith” suffices, but let it be sufficient to say that the articles of the Book of Concord are adamant to exclude even the virtue of love from the causative attainment of the forgiveness of sin. And yet, if one has intellectual faith, but the will is still turned against God, then you don’t have the qualifications to be forgiven according to God through Ezekiel. Only when the intellect (faith) and the will (agape) are turned to God do you have the capacity to be justified/forgiven. If the Protestants wants to insist on the necessary association of agape in this whole process, it is much more coherent to simply incorporate it into the causative process. Unfortunately, even if agape is made a causative link to forgiveness, the Lutherans think this is a return to the righteousness according to the law (Rom 9:30-31). However, the 1st century Christians had no problem to speak even off-the-cuff on how agape itself can justify man. And that seems to be understood by St. Clement, the primate of the archepiscopal throne of the Roman Church.

So, in conclusion, I take responsibility for my comments in 2012 to Dr. Cross, but I’ve come to understand my research had been deficient on both Catholicism, Paul’s theology, the exegesis of Romans, and the exegesis of St. Clement of Rome.


5 thoughts on “St. Clement of Rome (AD 35-99) and the Gift of Justification by Faith apart from Works

  1. Thanks for your efforts putting this together Erick. I must say I find your writing on justification and soteriology so refreshing. Some potential additional reasons to shift the dial toward the Catholic interpretation (coming from a current Protestant…):

    1. When referring to ‘righteous’ characters in the Old Testament, such as Noah, Enoch and Abraham, Clement regularly uses language like being “found righteous in obedience” and “found righteous, in as much as he rendered obedience to the words of God”.
    2. In later chapters, Clement links “being found in the number of those that wait for [Christ]” with the need to “do the things which are in harmony with His blameless will” and “[cast] out all unrighteousness” (Chapter 35).
    3. Irenaeus, whose soteriology I’d contend greatly resembles the Catholic tradition 1) stressed that all should agree with the Church of Rome and 2) specifically singled out and praised Clement for having the apostles echoing in his ears. It seems somewhat improbable that one who was so familiar with, and filled with such admiration for, Clement and who was insistent on agreeing with his Church, albeit roughly a century later, held a substantively different view of justification.

    As a final reflection, when I read the Church Fathers, while I read single passages like Clement 32 which could be read as endorsing an imputed righteousness view, the overwhelming impression I get is that such a concept seems very alien to them. When they talk about being righteous, they always seem be conveying it in the sense of the quality of one’s moral character. The view you propose in this article Erick also aligns very nicely with the concept so prominent in the early Patristic tradition (and present in the scriptures) of justification by faith and judgement by works (see the preface of Matthew Thomas’s book on Works of the Law for an excellent brief summary of this feature of the tradition).

    • Hi! Thanks for your input. Those are good points. I find that Protestants have a shop vaccuum that is labeled “merely a necessary consequence, therefore merely evidence” that they use to clean up all the conditionals. But, as I tried to say, this is very strained. As you said about the Old Testament patriarchs, Paul says in Hebrews:

      By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (Heb. 11:7)

      • I was not actually familiar with that Hebrews passage!

        If you’re interested and haven’t come across it before, Dr Matthew J Thomas has this article on Clement (published in 2014) that I found helpful - As a teaser, he writes “Such an understanding of justification—whereby present justification is received as a gift by faith apart from our own works or piety, and final justification is in accordance with the believer’s subsequent works—reconciles the apparent contradictions in this section and allows it to be read as a unified whole, and also demonstrates the coherence of Clement’s affirmations of faith and works elsewhere in the epistle.”

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