Ligon Duncan’s “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?”Jul 17th, 2010 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Dr. Ligon Duncan is an adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and also the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. At this year’s “Together for the Gospel” conference, held April 10-12 in Louisville, Kentucky, he gave a talk titled “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?” Here I examine the evidence Dr. Duncan presents that the Church Fathers knew of the Reformed conception of the gospel.
In this seventy-two minute talk, Dr. Duncan seeks to answer the question: “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?” Of course there is a good deal of overlap in the Reformed and Catholic doctrines concerning the gospel. But when Dr. Duncan says, “the gospel” he means the Reformed or Calvinistic or at least Protestant conception of the gospel, not the Catholic doctrine of the gospel as defined at the Council of Trent. One reason why he has to mean this is that the basis for the continued separation of Protestants from the Catholic Church is the claim by many Protestants (especially of the sort attending the “Together for the Gospel” conference) that what the Catholic Church teaches is not “the gospel,” and is incompatible with the [Reformed] gospel. So if present-day orthodox Catholics can affirm what the Church Fathers taught about the gospel, then it follows that the Fathers did not have the Reformed conception of the gospel.
Dr. Duncan’s answer to the question “Did the Fathers know the Gospel?” is a qualified ‘yes.’ He thinks they were not as clear as they could have been about the nature of the gospel, especially about things like imputation. But, he thinks that they did know the [Reformed] gospel. In his talk he presents six pieces of evidence from the early Church Fathers that they knew the [Reformed] gospel. He says a great deal in the first part of his talk about the importance of the early Church Fathers and about how to read them. Only in the fifty-sixth minute of his talk does he begin to present his six pieces of evidence that the Church Fathers knew the gospel. Dr. Duncan did his doctoral work in patristics, and we can assume that in picking six pieces of evidence that the Fathers knew the Reformed conception of the gospel, he would pick the strongest pieces of evidence available to make his case. But, as I show below, each piece of patristic evidence to which Dr. Duncan appeals is fully compatible with the Catholic doctrine concerning justification, as taught at the Council of Trent. And therefore these six pieces of evidence do not support the notion that the Church Fathers knew of or believed a Reformed conception of the gospel over or instead of the Catholic doctrine.
Six Pieces of Evidence
I. St. Clement, bishop of Rome
II. Epistle to Diognetus
III. St. Melito, bishop of Sardis
IV. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon
V. St. Justin Martyr
VI. St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers
On account of the love He bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls. (Letter to the Corinthians, 49)
Can a Catholic affirm St. Clement’s statement? Most definitely. The Catholic Church believes and teaches that Christ freely gave His life as a sacrifice for us, to save us from our sins. Nothing about this statement from St. Clement supports the Reformed conception of the gospel over the Catholic teaching on the gospel. St. Clement’s statement is fully compatible with everything taught by the Council of Trent, and therefore it cannot justifiably be used to support the claim that the Church Fathers knew the Reformed conception of the gospel.1
Dr. Duncan’s second piece of evidence is from the Epistle to Diognetus. The date for this epistle is not exactly certain, but it was most likely written in the second century, possibly the third. At 57’07” into the video Dr. Duncan quotes from the ninth paragraph of the Epistle to Diognetus:
But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! (Epistle to Diognetus, 9)
Can a Catholic affirm this quotation from the Epistle to Diognetus? Again, most definitely. That Christ became a ransom for us is taught not only by Scripture, but also by the Catholic Catechism, which reads:
The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of “the righteous one, my Servant” as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin. (CCC 601) … Consequently, St. Peter can formulate the apostolic faith in the divine plan of salvation in this way: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers. . . with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.” Man’s sins, following on original sin, are punishable by death. By sending his own Son in the form of a slave, in the form of a fallen humanity, on account of sin, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (CCC 602) The redemption won by Christ consists in this, that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28), that is, he “loved [his own] to the end” (Jn 13:1), so that they might be “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] fathers” (I Pt 1:18). (CCC 622)
When the author of the Epistle to Diognetus says that only Christ’s righteousness was capable of covering our sins, he means that only Christ’s righteousness could make atonement for our sins. The author is not talking about Christians being simul iustus et peccator or possessing Christ’s righteousness by way of an extra nos imputation. The author is writing about Christ’s sacrificial atonement. Christ is the perfect Lamb, and because He is perfect, only He could offer to the Father on our behalf the perfect sacrifice that atoned for our sins, procuring for us the grace by which our sins are removed. The author of the Epistle to Diognetus explains this when he speaks of our wickedness being “hid in a single righteous One.” That is the sense in which Christ’s righteousness was “capable of covering our sins,” through His work of sacrificial atonement offered to God, not through an imputation of righteousness that hides our underlying wickedness. Such a notion would have been entirely repugnant to the Fathers. The doctrine being taught by the author of the Epistle to Diognetus is that Christ took our sins on Himself as our priest and mediator. Our sins were hidden in Him not by imputation, but by mediation. Christ made atonement for them by becoming our sacrificial lamb, and offering Himself in self-sacrificial love to the Father on our behalf. He is both perfect priest and perfect sacrifice. He as priest and perfect sacrifice takes upon Himself the burden of our iniquities, including suffering and death; we in turn receive from Him the grace and agape by which we are justified. That is the nature of the “sweet exchange” to which he refers. Christ freely gave Himself up to the Father, suffering in His body and soul for our sins (see here), and we in return receive the infused grace and agape by which we are justified. So this selection from the Epistle to Diognetus is not evidence of even an implicit Reformed conception of the gospel, because it is fully compatible with the Catholic doctrine of redemption, and best understood as teaching the Catholic understanding of Christ’s redemptive work.
Dr. Duncan’s third piece of evidence is from St. Melito, bishop of Sardis. St. Melito died about A.D. 180. At 58’30” in his talk, Dr. Duncan claims to be quoting from the Homily of the Pascha, given by St. Melito of Sardis in A.D. 167-68. Purporting to be quoting from St. Melito’s homily, Dr. Duncan says:
When our Lord arose from the place of the dead and trampled death under foot and bound the strong one and set men free, then the whole creation saw clearly that for man’s sake the Judge was condemned. In the place of Isaac the just a ram appeared for slaughter in order that Isaac might be liberated from his bonds, the slaughter of this animal redeemed Isaac from death. In like manner the Lord, being slain, saved us, being bound, He loosed us, being sacrificed, He redeemed us; He bought us back.
One problem is that this quotation is not found in St. Melito’s Homily of the Pascha. The first sentence is cobbled together from paragraphs 101-103 of the Homily, which looks like this:
He [i.e. Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, He says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven. I, He says, am the Christ. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand. (101-103)
But the rest of the quotation Dr. Duncan attributes to St. Melito is not in St. Melito’s Homily of the Pascha.2 Even so, can a Catholic affirm the quotation Dr. Duncan attributes to St. Melito? Again, most definitely, yes. Christ for our sake allowed Himself to be condemned by the Sanhedrin and by Pilate. Like Isaac, who was a type of Christ, Christ took our place, suffering death by the hands of men, that we might be redeemed from sin, death and the devil. Dr. Duncan is seemingly assuming that any notion of substitutionary atonement (or penal substitution) in the Church Fathers is evidence of a doctrine of extra nos imputation. But that is not a safe assumption. The Catholic Church teaches that in our place Christ freely bore the curse of sin, which is death, so that we might be raised to new life. In other words, there is a Catholic form of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Therefore, finding substitutionary atonement in the Fathers is not evidence of a Reformed conception of the gospel in the Fathers. In order to show that there is a Reformed conception of the gospel in what St. Melito says, Dr. Duncan would have to show that St. Melito is teaching something incompatible with the doctrine taught by the Council of Trent. But Dr. Duncan has not done that, and cannot do that, because what St. Melito says here is fully compatible with the teaching of the Council of Trent.
Dr. Duncan’s fourth piece of evidence is from St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon during the latter part of the second century. At 59’11” in the video Dr. Duncan claims that St. Irenaeus could remember the day when he was sitting at Smyrna under a man whom (according to Dr. Duncan) St. Irenaeus calls “a certain elder.” Dr. Duncan says, “It was probably Papias.” But St. Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis. St. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna when St. Irenaeus was a young man. St. Irenaeus himself tells us that it was St. Polycarp whom he saw as a young man, writing:
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,— a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. (Against Heresies, III.3.4)
Dr. Duncan then quotes the following passage from St. Irenaeus:
For doing away with [the effects of] that disobedience of man which had taken place at the beginning by the occasion of a tree, “He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross;” (Philippians 2:8) rectifying that disobedience which had occurred by reason of a tree, through that obedience which was [wrought out] upon the tree [of the cross]. Now He would not have come to do away, by means of that same [image], the disobedience which had been incurred towards our Maker if He proclaimed another Father. But inasmuch as it was by these things that we disobeyed God, and did not give credit to His word, so was it also by these same that He brought in obedience and consent as respects His Word; by which things He clearly shows forth God Himself, whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning. Now this being is the Creator (Demiurgus), who is, in respect of His love, the Father; but in respect of His power, He is Lord; and in respect of His wisdom, our Maker and Fashioner; by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “the Mediator between God and men;” (1 Timothy 2:5) propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. (Against Heresies, V.16-17)
A Catholic can affirm everything that St. Irenaeus says here. Christ, by His perfect atonement, propitiates the Father against whom we had sinned, merits for us the grace which is the gift of communion with Him, and by infusion of this grace and agape, confers upon us loving subjection to the Father and the cancellation of our disobedience. All that a Catholic can and should gladly affirm, and therefore it is no evidence that St. Irenaeus knew of or believed the Reformed conception of the gospel. Moreover, what St. Irenaeus means when speaking of “cancelling our disobedience by His own obedience” is not a double extra nos imputaton. For St. Irenaeus, by the infusion of grace and agape, we are made “obedient even unto death;” we are brought into loving subjection to our Maker. St. Irenaeus is describing a Catholic understanding of justification.3 Also problematic for Dr. Duncan’s claim is that St. Irenaeus explicitly taught the Catholic doctrine of justification by baptismal regeneration, a doctrine that, according to Wes White, is “incompatible with the Reformed system.” [Update: In addition, certain of St. Irenaeus’s statements on justification, such as “And that the Lord did not abrogate the natural [precepts] of the law, by which man is justified” and “He [God] exhorts and advises them to those things by which man is justified and draws near to God,” are incompatible with Protestant conceptions of justification, as I have shown in “St. Irenaeus on Justification.”]
Dr. Duncan’s fifth piece of evidence that the Fathers knew the gospel is from St. Justin Martyr, who was martyred about A.D. 165. At 61’28” in his talk Dr. Duncan quotes from St. Justin Martyr. First he quotes from St. Justin’s Second Apology:
For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other-things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers; and much less would he denounce himself when the consequence would be death? (Second Apology, 12)
Then at 62’05” he moves to St. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, and quotes St. Justin as an example of conversion, saying:
When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. (Dialogue with Trypho, 8)
Again, everything that St. Justin says here a Catholic can affirm. There is nothing here a Catholic cannot affirm. So this cannot be evidence that St. Justin knew of or believed a Reformed conception of the gospel. Yet, problematic for Dr. Duncan’s thesis, presumably Dr. Duncan denies St. Justin Martyr’s doctrine of justification, because St. Justin taught baptismal regeneration.
was one of the Church Fathers prior to Augustine who highlighted the importance of justification by faith alone. And he did it by going to the gospels. He went, for instance, to the parable of the workers in the vineyard. And he used it as a case for illustrating that salvation is completely God’s gift (Matt. 20: 1–16). Despite the fact that some workers are hired at the eleventh hour of the day, they received the same wages as those who were hired in the morning. The remuneration for those hired last, Hilary says, demonstrates that it was not based on the merit but on grace. He says, Rather, ‘God has freely granted his grace to all through justification by faith.’
Here is what St. Hilary says in this passage about the parable in the gospel of Matthew:
When it began to get late, the workers of the evening hour were the first to obtain the payment as determined by a whole day’s work. Payment is certainly not derived from a gift because it was owed for work rendered, but God has freely granted his grace to everyone by the justification of faith … Thus [God] bestows the gift of grace by faith on those who believe, either first or last.
St. Hilary is here saying that the grace of justification by faith is given not according to merit, but gratuitously. In other words, it is not necessarily those Jews who worked so diligently to keep the law who received the grace of justification. Rather, in many cases it was Gentiles and sinners who were given the grace of repentance and new life. St. Hilary is not here saying that everyone in heaven is rewarded equally. He is not talking about rewards in heaven, but about receiving the gift of grace here in this life. And Catholics also affirm that we are justified by faith. Chapter eight of Session VI of the Council of Trent teaches:
But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, [Rom 3:24; 5:1] these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God [Heb. 11:6] and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.4
In short, a Catholic can fully affirm what the bishop of Poitiers says here.
At 63’50” in the video Dr. Duncan quotes from D.H. Williams, who wrote:
It is historically important to note that Hilary is the first Christian theologian explicitly to have formulated what Paul left implicit by referring to God’s work of grace in the phrase, ‘fides sola iustificat:’ ‘Because faith alone justifies … publicans and prostitutes will be first in the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. xxi.15). (“Justification By Faith: A Patristic Doctrine,” p. 660)
Here, in his commentary on the gospel of Matthew, St. Hilary is talking about the fact that the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things Jesus had done, and even saw the children in the Temple crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and yet they became indignant with Jesus. (Matt 21:15) So there are two things to note. First, St. Hilary is here talking about coming to justification, not about the Christian life after regeneration. He is not saying that those who come to faith and continue to live as prostitutes are justified. He is talking about being translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Second, by the context it is clear that St. Hilary is contrasting those persons in Matthew’s Gospel who believed Christ’s message, and those Jewish priests and scribes who rejected Christ’s message. So when St. Hilary says “faith alone justifies” the ‘alone’ is not unqualified; by ‘alone’ he is saying that coming to justification is not based on the degree to which one has kept the “works of the law.” In other words, justification is not merited by prior law-keeping; that’s what the ‘alone’ is excluding. By ‘alone’ here St. Hilary is not saying that justification is not by agape and not by baptism; he is excluding “works of the law” (done apart from grace) as means by which we merit justification. How do we know that he is not excluding baptism? Because in this same commentary on the gospel of Matthew, he writes:
When therefore, we are renewed in the laver of baptism through the power of the Word, we are separated from the sin and source of our origin (ab originis nostrae peccatis atque auctoribus), and when we have endured a sort of excision from the sword of God, we differ from the dispositions of our father and mother [e.g., Adam and Eve]. (Mt x.24)
And elsewhere St. Hilary clearly affirms a doctrine of baptismal regeneration that Dr. Duncan presumably rejects. Everything that Dr. Duncan quotes from St. Hilary can without inconsistency be affirmed by any orthodox Catholic because it is fully in agreement with what the Church later taught at the Council of Trent.
Then at 64’34” in the video Dr. Duncan again quotes Williams, who wrote:
There is the strong possibility that Hilary’s commentary sparked or fuelled the revival of Pauline studies in the west during the last decades of the fourth century.
Then at 64’52” Dr. Duncan adds:
And what did that set the table for? A man named Augustine. Just in time for him to engage a man named Pelagius. But it’s happening before Augustine; this is why I didn’t go to Augustine. It would be so easy to go to Augustine on justification. But I wanted you to see that before Augustine this stuff was already in the water.
The problem for Dr. Duncan’s thesis is that St. Augustine’s doctrine of justification is no less Catholic than is St. Hilary’s, as I showed recently here. In short, nothing that Dr. Duncan quotes from the Church Fathers is contrary to the Catholic faith in the least bit. All six pieces of evidence he offers are fully Catholic, completely compatible with the doctrine of justification taught by the Council of Trent. And therefore it is misleading to claim that these patristic quotations are evidence that the Fathers in some nascent way “knew” or affirmed or would have affirmed, the Reformed conception of the gospel over that of the Catholic Church. Such a claim amounts to a proof-texting that attempts to read into the patristic writers a theology that is in no way there. If the reason Protestants cannot return to the Catholic Church is that the Catholic gospel is incompatible with the Reformed conception of the gospel, and if present-day orthodox Catholics can without contradiction fully affirm the very best patristic evidence Dr. Duncan can find that the Church Fathers knew of the Reformed conception of the gospel, it follows that the Church Fathers did not know the Reformed gospel, and one must therefore conclude either that some form of ecclesial deism is true, or that the “Reformed gospel” is not the gospel received by the early Church Fathers from the Apostles. My hope and prayer is that Dr. Duncan and other Protestants will see and acknowledge that the Church Fathers did not know or teach the Reformed conception of the gospel. Recognizing that the Reformed conception of the gospel is a theological novum (i.e. novelty) of the sixteenth century is a necessary step, in my opinion, for Reformed Protestants and Catholics to be reconciled in full communion.
- Update: See the soteriology section of “St. Clement of Rome: Soteriology and Ecclesiology.” [↩]
- St. Melito refers to Isaac in three places in his Homily. Here are all three places:
Accordingly, if you desire to see the mystery of the Lord, pay close attention to Abel who likewise was put to death, to Isaac who likewise was bound hand and foot, to Joseph who likewise was sold, to Moses who likewise was exposed, to David who likewise was hunted down, to the prophets who likewise suffered because they were the Lord’s anointed. (para. 59)
This one is the passover of our salvation. This is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: This is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets. (para. 69)
the one who set in motion the stars of heaven, the one who caused those luminaries to shine, the one who made the angels in heaven, the one who established their thrones in that place, the one who by himself fashioned man upon the earth. This was the one who chose you, the one who guided you from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to Isaac and Jacob and the Twelve Patriarchs. (para. 83)
Not one of these is anything like the second part of the quotation Dr. Duncan attributed to St. Melito. [↩]
- Update: See “St. Irenaeus on Justification.” [↩]
- See here. [↩]