A Study in the Catholicity of Lutheran Theology
The Lutherans of the sixteenth century consistently maintained that their cultus and confession were truly catholic: “…nothing has been received among us, in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or to the church catholic”;1 “…No novelty has been introduced which did not exist in the church from ancient times…”;2 “…our churches dissent from the church catholic in no article of faith but only omit some few abuses which are new and have been adopted by the fault of the times…”3 According to the Lutherans it was Rome, and not Wittenberg, that had departed from the authentic catholic faith of the apostles and Fathers of the Church.
One of the most significant assertions of the Lutheran reformers was that sinners are justified before God by grace through faith alone, and not by human works or merits of any kind. In regard to the Lutheran doctrine of justification, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession makes the following statement:
We know that what we have said agrees with the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, with the holy Fathers Ambrose, Augustine, and many others, and with the whole church of Christ, which certainly confesses that Christ is the propitiator and the justifier.4
Was this claim valid? Was the Lutheran doctrine of justification truly catholic, or was it (as the Pope and his followers claimed) a sectarian innovation? Since the Lutherans appealed explicitly to the ancient Father St. Ambrose (among others) as one who taught what they were teaching, it will be helpful to examine Ambrose’s writings on justification to determine if the Lutherans really understood his position and if his teaching did in fact confirm theirs.
St. Ambrose (c.338-397), Bishop of Milan, has always been remembered as a courageous churchman, an able teacher, and a faithful shepherd. Christendom has also counted him as one of the eight “Doctors of the Church,” and an examination of his writings readily confirms the appropriateness of this honor.
Ambrose’s theology is first and foremost a Christ-centered theology. According to Ambrose, “where Christ is, there are all things, there is his teaching, there forgiveness of sins, there grace, there the separation of the dead and the living.”5 Ambrose accordingly focuses on the saving work of Christ as the only hope for sinners: “He gave himself to be offered for our sins, that by his blood he might cleanse the world, whose sin could not be abolished in any other way.”6 “The Lord’s death is my redemption, for we are redeemed by his precious blood.”7 Ambrose’s doctrine of the atonement actually includes two facets. The significance of Christ’s suffering and death as an expiatory sacrifice to God is explained in the following words:
Jesus took on himself even death, that the sentence of condemnation might be carried out, that he might satisfy the judgment that sinful flesh should be cursed even unto death. Nothing therefore was done contrary to the sentence of God, since the condition of God’s sentence was fulfilled.8
The significance of Christ’s suffering and death as a ransom to the devil is explained thus:
If we were redeemed not with perishable things – with silver and gold – but with the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, surely the one who sold us had a right to our service in the coin of a now sinful race. And, undoubtedly, to release from slavery those whom he held bound he demanded a price. The price of our freedom was the blood of our Lord Jesus, and it had to be paid necessarily to the one to whom we had been sold by our sins.9
As might be expected, the grace of God has a central place in Ambrose’s theology. He asks,
What can we do worthy of heavenly rewards? By what labours, by what sufferings, can we wash away our sins? Not according to our merits, but according to the mercy of God, the heavenly decrees concerning men are issued.10
According to Ambrose, “the grace of the Lord is given not as a reward which has been earned, but simply according to the will of the giver.”11 Ambrose also writes: “Let no one arrogate aught to himself, let no one boast of his merits or his power, but let us all hope to find mercy through the Lord Jesus.”12 It is indeed God’s gracious call that alone sets the sinner free, and Ambrose therefore prays to his Lord:
Call forth thy servant. Although I am bound with the chains of my sins, being now buried in dead thoughts and works, yet at thy call I shall go forth free and be found one of those sitting at thy feast.13
And how, exactly, is God’s gracious salvation actually received by each individual Christian? According to Ambrose, “God chose that man should seek salvation by faith rather than by works, lest any should glory in his deeds and should thereby incur sin.”14 The evangelical character of Ambrose’s theology is also evident in what he writes in regard to John 3:36:
Let us consider another similar passage: “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life, but he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” That which abideth has certainly had a commencement, and that from some offense, viz., that first he not believe. When, then, anyone believes, the wrath of God departs and life comes. To believe, then, in Christ is to gain life, for “he that believeth in him is not judged” [John 3:18].15
The following comparison that Ambrose makes between the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) and the Christian clearly demonstrates that he understands “faith” to be much more than a mere mental acceptance of certain doctrines and facts:
The woman was immediately healed, because she drew to him in faith. And do you with faith touch but the hem of his garment. The torrential flow of worldly passions will be dried up by the warmth of the saving Word, if you but draw near to him with faith, if with like devotion you grasp at least the hem of his garment. O faith richer than all treasures! A faith stronger than all the powers of the body, more health-giving than all the physicians!16
In examining Ambrose’s use of the terms “justification” and “justified,” it becomes clear that he connects justification with forgiveness. Ambrose states that “he is justified from sin to whom all sins are remitted through baptism.”17 According to Ambrose, good works cannot be a cause of forgiveness and justification because in our sinful condition we are simply incapable of producing works that are truly good. He writes that “we are not justified by works but by faith, because the infirmity of our flesh is an impediment to works; but the brightness of faith overshadows the error of works and merits forgiveness of our faults.”18 Again, “Not of works, but of faith, each is justified by the Lord.”19
Sanctification and good works naturally follow justification and are necessary as the fruits of a true justifying faith. However, Ambrose makes it clear that these fruits must not be relied on as in any way earning God’s favor:
I will glory not because I am righteous but because I am redeemed; I will glory not because I am free from sins but because my sins are forgiven me. I will glory not because I have done good nor because someone has done good to me but because Christ is my advocate with the Father and because the blood of Christ has been shed for me.20
The Pauline emphasis on justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner is reflected in the following statement by Ambrose:
In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of Paradise, in Adam I died. How shall God call me back, except he find me in the Second Adam – justified in Christ, even as in the first Adam I was made subject to guilt and destined to death?21
Ambrose’s most thorough treatment of the doctrine of justification is found in a letter to a layman named Irenaeus,22 which is quoted at length in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.23 This letter, in which Ambrose also outlines the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, deserves to be quoted at length here as well:
Sin abounded by the Law because through the Law came knowledge of sin and it became harmful for me to know what through my weakness I could not avoid. It is good to know beforehand what one is to avoid, but, if I cannot avoid something, it is harmful to have known about it. Thus was the Law changed to its opposite, yet it became useful to me by the very increase of sin, for I was humbled. And David therefore says: “It is good for me that I have been humbled” [Psalm 119:71]. By humbling myself I have broken the bonds of that ancient transgression by which Adam and Eve had bound the whole line of their succession. Hence, too, the Lord came as an obedient man to loose the knot of man’s disobedience and deception. And as through disobedience sin entered, so through obedience sin was remitted. Therefore, the Apostle says: “For just as by the disobedience of one man the many were constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted just” [Romans 5:19].
Here is one reason that the Law was unnecessary and became necessary, unnecessary in that it would not have been needed if we had been able to keep the natural law; but, as we did not keep it, the Law of Moses became needful to teach me obedience and loosen that bond of Adam’s deception which had ensnared his whole posterity. Yes, guilt grew by the Law, but pride, the source of guilt, was loosed, and this was an advantage to me. Pride discovered the guilt and the guilt brought grace.
Consider another reason. The Law of Moses was not needful; hence, it entered secretly. Its entrance seems not of an ordinary kind, but like something clandestine because it entered secretly into the place of the natural law. Thus, if she had but kept her place, this written law would never have entered it, but, since deception had banished that law and nearly blotted it out of the human breast, pride reigned and disobedience was rampant. Therefore, that other took its place so that by its written expression it might challenge us and shut our mouth, in order to make the whole world subject to God. The world,24 however, became subject to him through the Law, because all are brought to trial by the prescript of the Law, and no one is justified by the works of the Law; in other words, because the knowledge of sin comes from the Law, but guilt is not remitted, the Law, therefore, which has made all men sinners, seems to have caused harm.
But, when the Lord Jesus came he forgave all men the sin they could not escape, and canceled the decree against us by shedding his blood [Colossians 2:14]. This is what he says: “By the Law sin abounded, but grace abounded by Jesus” [Romans 5:20], since after the whole world became subject he took away the sins of the whole world, as John bears witness, saying: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29] Let no one glory, then, in his own works, since no one is justified by his deeds, but one who is just has received a gift, being justified by Baptism. It is faith, therefore, which sets us free by the blood of Christ, for he is blessed whose sin is forgiven and to whom pardon is granted [Psalm 32:1].25
It seems fair to conclude that the sixteenth-century Lutheran doctrine of justification was fully congruent with the teaching of St. Ambrose on this subject, and that the Lutherans’ appeals to him were both legitimate and accurate. In those writings in which Ambrose dealt with this matter deliberately and carefully, he taught on the basis of Holy Scripture that sinners are justified before God by grace through faith alone, and not by human works or merits of any kind. On this central article of the Christian faith, the Lutherans were thoroughly “Ambrosian,” and if Ambrose’s views are a reflection of the authentic catholic position, the Lutherans were also thoroughly “catholic.”26
23. Apology IV:103, Tappert pp. 121-22. In the text of the Apology, immediately after the appearance of this quotation, we read: “These are the words of Ambrose, which clearly support our position; he denies justification to works and ascribes it to faith, which liberates us through the blood of Christ. If you pile up all the commentators on the Sentences with all their magnificent titles – for some are called ‘angelic’ [Thomas Aquinas], others ‘subtle’ [John Duns Scotus], and others ‘irrefutable’ [Alexander of Hales] – read them and reread them, they contribute less to an understanding of Paul than this one sentence from Ambrose.” (Apology IV:104-05, Tappert p. 122.)
25. Epistle 73, in The Fathers of the Church 26, pp. 466-68. In the translation of Epistle 73 that is found in that source, Ambrose’s Latin phrase “quia ex praescripto legis omnes conveniuntur et ex operibus legis nemo iustificatur” is rendered inaccurately as “because all are brought to trial by the prescript of the Law, and no one is justified without the works of the Law.” This is corrected in the quotation that appears in this essay.
26. In his “Treatise on the Reading of the Fathers or Doctors of the Church,” Martin Chemnitz offers these very interesting comments about the writings of St. Ambrose in general: “He wrote many things, but best are the commentaries which he wrote on all the epistles of Paul, which can be of great help to the reader. There also is extant his commentary on Luke. He wrote on Isaiah, a work which antiquity held in the highest authority of all his writings. But it no longer is extant. In his Pauline commentaries he speaks most accurately about justification. There are also some other writings by him which are definitely doctrinal. Yet he has some statements which are not so satisfactory, particularly on free will and original sin. These were seized upon by the Pelagians as being his firm opinion. But Augustine, in his Contra Julianum, Bk. 1, shows clearly how these statements are to be understood. Ambrose was held in great authority even among the easterners, who criticized Jerome because in speaking of him he gave him too little honor.” (Chemnitz, Loci Theologici (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989), Vol. I, p. 32.) We now know that the Pauline commentaries to which Chemnitz refers were not actually written by Ambrose. Chemnitz’s positive analysis of Ambrose’s teaching on justification would also apply, however, to many of Ambrose’s genuine writings (such as the ones from which the quotations in this essay are taken), where he does indeed speak “most accurately about justification.”
This essay was published in Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3 (September 1988), pp. 71-80. The printed version differs slightly from the online version that appears here.