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“Justification” in Second-Century Christian Texts

March 11, 2019

It was long thought (especially in some Protestant circles) that second-century Christianity lost track of the Pauline emphasis on “justification” by God through faith.  One of the most influential studies that established this view was by the famous Edinburgh scholar, Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (Eerdmans, 1959).  Several subsequent studies have challenged this view from various angles, and the most recent challenge is by Brian J. Arnold, Justification in the Second Century (De Gruyter, 2017; now available in a more economical paperback from Baylor University Press, 2018).  The Baylor online entry is here.

After a review of previous scholarship, Arnold examines several major second-century texts:  1 Clement, Ignatius of Antioch (epistles), Epistle to Diognetus, the Odes of Solomon, and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.

Granting that these texts don’t necessarily use Pauline language, Arnold makes his case that, nevertheless, they do reflect a similar “Pauline” view that “justification” (a right standing with God) is a gift received through trust in God through Christ.  Based on his PhD dissertation, the book is necessarily a technical study that will require some knowledge of Greek and German, for example.  But for those able to handle this depth of discussion, it is a helpful contribution to what appears to be a growing interest in second-century Christianity.

There is also a generous-sized bibliography, helpfully arranged for each of the texts examined.

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  1. Somewhat off-track but somewhat relevant, but how important and useful to NT scholars/textual critics is St. Ignatius’ use of the Paulines?
    Asking as a layman. Thanks

    • Ignatius’ epistles show that he was familiar with a collection of Pauline epistles. This is important in framing a history of the Pauline corpus.

  2. Richard Goodwin permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, I apologize for asking a slightly off topic question, but have you written on the Christology of 1 Clement outside of your remarks in Lord Jesus Christ?

    I have begun studying some of the Apostolic Fathers recently and wasn’t sure what to make of the Christology of 1 Clement, which appears “lower” than some of the very NT epistles it quotes (especially Hebrews). Likewise, I’m not sure what to make of the faintly adoptionist language that appears toward the end, stating God “chose our Lord Jesus Christ and us through Him.”

    Perhaps I am misinterpreting the text but, having found your writings on New Testament Christology very insightful, I wanted to know if you had written anywhere on the subject. Thank you, Richard

    • I think that it’s a mistake to read texts as “high” or “low” christology, as this imposes an external standard upon them. 1 Clement is profoundly expressive of the supremacy of the one God as creator and ruler, and the one to whom worship is due. Christ functions more as the chief agent of God, through whom God reveals himself and through who believers pray and worship God. 1 Clement is profoundly shaped by liturgical traditions, as reflected in the prayer in 59, where the term “pais” is used for Jesus, a traditional term that = chosen servant/child. Jesus here is the mediator and medium of divine revelation. Some major studies:
      Harold Bertram Bumpus, The Christological Awareness of Clement of Rome and Its Sources (Cambridge, MA: University Press of Cambridge, 1972)
      Philippe Henne, La christologie chez Clément de Rome et dans le Pasteur d’Hermas, Paradosis, no. 33 (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg, 1992)

  3. Julian permalink

    I’m curious, Professor Hurtado, if Arnold attempts to argue for some early form of Penal Substitution in these works.

    • Arnold’s work focuses on evidence of belief that God “justifies” believers by grace and through faith. He doesn’t get into theories of atonement.

  4. Jim Kelhoffer permalink

    Dear Larry,

    Thanks for this informative post. I hadn’t known about Arnold’s book and will check it out. A quick look at the table of contents suggests that “my” text (2 Clement) isn’t discussed, which is reasonable since Arnold treats an impressive range of sources – plenty for a monograph.

    Bultman’s characterisation of 2 Clement, along with several of the Catholic Epistles, as legalistic and symptomatic of “early Catholicism” has had much influence in our guild, so it’s welcome if Arnold is inviting us to move beyond that flawed theoretical framework. On my reading of Torrance, which I think is still a valuable study, there’s a significant amount of Bultmann’s categories lurking in the background. A few years ago, I tried to challenge that conceptual approach to 2 Clement suggesting, rather, that the mutual and continuous obligations of patrons and clients to each other provide a model for 2 Clement’s admonitions about the presentation of “righteousness” as emblematic of what believers do. The essay is:

    J. A. Kelhoffer, “Faith and Righteousness in Second Clement: Probing the Purported Influence of ‘Late Judaism’ and the Beginnings of ‘Early Catholicism.’” In Glaube: Das Verständnis des Glaubens im frühen Christentum und in seiner jüdischen und hellenistisch-römischen Umwelt, ed. Jörg Frey, Benjamin Schliesser, and Nadine Ueberschaer, WUNT 377 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017), 683–720. ISBN 9783161538780.

    Granted, 2 Clement is far from a Pauline framework (and your colleague Paul Foster has argued for the “absence” of Paul in 2 Clement) – regardless of whether Pauline theology as understood as, e.g., by Luther, Bultmann, or in the “new perspective.” I attach the essay for your reference.

    Best wishes, Jim


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