Why I’m Not, And Never Will Be, A Roman Catholic (Reason 3 – Ambrosiaster, Solafide, and McGrath’s ‘Iustitia Dei’)

March 6, 2011

Jesus, Mary and Joseph depicted in stained glass

These excerpts are found in Ambrosiaster’s commentary on the book of Romans. It is believed that he wrote the commentary in the 4th century around 370 A.D. Also, according to the prologue, “it is certain that by the end of the 4th century Ambrosiaster’s commentary had become a standard work of Latin biblical study and that it retained its influence even after the publication of Jerome’s new Vulgate translation”.

In other words, what we need to point out to Roman Catholics, who only view history through the lens of Sola Ecclesia, is that 1. “solafide” wasn’t an invention in the 1500’s by Luther, thus 2. justification by works righteousness WASN’T the “unanimous consent” of the early church fathers (which Trent and Vatican I allude to in regards to the derivation of Rome’s official teachings), and 3. Ambrosiaster wasn’t considered to be teaching heretical things back then (yet Trent would anathematize any who believe solafide today). On the contrary, his commentary was widely used, even after the printing of the Vulgate. Note: I’m not saying that any early fathers were proto-Lutherans, but that allusions to solafide are there. I get into this a little more below when I clarify Catholic misunderstandings of Alister McGrath’s ‘Iustitia Dei’.

Here are some excerpts:


“both of them (Jews and Gentiles) stand in need of the mercy of God, hoping for salvation not by the law but by faith in Christ Jesus.”

Romans 1:1

“he might preach Christ, who justifies those who believe in him, which the law could not do.”

Romans 1:15

“Therefore, if the Jew can only be justified by faith in Christ, what need is there to be under the law?”

Romans 1:17

“Paul now moves over to the prophet Habakkuk in order to declare that in the past it was revealed that a just man lives by faith and not by the law, in other words, that a man is not justified before God by the law buy by faith.”

Rom 2:11

“Paul shows that neither Jews nor Greeks will be rejected by God if they believe in Christ, but that both are justified by faith.”

Romans 3:20

“Paul never says that men will not be justified before God because they have not kept the law of righteousness in the commandments, but because they have refused to believe the sacrament of the mystery of God, which is in Christ. For it is by that that God has delcared that men should be justified, and not by the law, which justifies for a time, but not [eternally] before God. Therefore those who keep the law in time are justified, but not before God, because faith, by which men are justifed before God is not in them. For faith is greater than the law, since the law pertains to us but faith pertains to God. The law has a temporary righteousness, but faith has an eternal one.”

Romans 3:22-23

“What else comes through faith in Jesus Christ except the righteousness of God, which is the revelation of Christ? For it is by faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ that the gift long ago promised by God is acknowledged and received.”

Romans 3:24

“They are justified freely, because they have not done anything nor given anything in return, but by faith alone they have been made holy by the gift of God.”

Romans 3:27

“seeing that no one is justified before God except by faith.”

Romans 4:2

“Abraham does indeed have glory before God, but this is only because of the faith by which he was justified.

Romans 4:5

“How then can the Jews think that they have been justified by the works of the law in the same way as Abraham, when they see that Abraham was not justified by the works of the law, but by faith alone? Therefore, there is no need of the law, when the ungodly person is justified before God by faith alone. Thus, Paul says that it has been decreed by God that when the law comes to an end, the grace of God will demand faith alone for salvation.”

Romans 4:6

“Paul backs this up by the example of the prophet David, who says that those are blessed of whom God has decreed that, without work or any keeping of the law, they are justified before God by faith alone.”

“The prophet… calls them blessed, because their sins are forgiven, covered and not reckoned to them, and this without labor or work of any kind.

What do Catholics argue?

I’ve found that over the internet, a plethora of Catholics are going around and quoting Alister McGrath when he writes, “Like many of his contemporaries, for example, he [Ambrosiaster] appears to be obsessed with the idea that man can acquire merit before God, and the associated idea that certain labours are necessary to attain this.” (Iustitia Dei, pg.23)

But McGrath also says, ““The early Latin fathers, prior to the Pelagian controversy, do not appear to have considered merit to involve any real claim on the part of humans to divine reward on the basis of their efforts.”


“Despite the semantic associations of the Latin term meritum, the early use of the term appears to have been quite innocent of the overtones of works-righteousness’ which would later be associated with it.” (Ibid. 138-139)

In other words, some Catholics claim that McGrath views Ambrosiaster as believing in justification via merit. McGrath’s point is completely opposite of how Catholics are quoting him, simply because they fail to quote all of him. In addition, his position harmonizes with Ambrosiaster’s teaching since in his commentary on Romans he uses justification in the past tense, and then speaks of “merit” as being rewards after the fact, not unto justification.

On Rom 4:25 “And so he might top off our justification, after his resurrection he gave authority by his commandments, that by imitating them we might increase our merits.”

On Rom 5:8 “what will he do for those who have been justified…”

McGrath’s ‘Iustitia Dei’ doesn’t look at patristic fathers who alluded to solafide. Rather, he shows that the “nature” of justification was a theological novum, rather than the “mode” of justification. I believe what McGrath means by “nature” is the sinner’s passive-ness in being justified, because he continues to show along these lines how Luther eventually developed this understanding in his theology.

But this is only a clarification of the doctrine of justification, and this clarification was new during the Reformation. A clarification isn’t the gospel, but only a clarification of the gospel. Aka, the real gospel has always been known Biblically by many of God’s people, just not certain clarifications of it.

Historically speaking, we could probably conclude that all the fathers (i.e. Clement of Rome, Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, etc) who mentioned solafide had more of an Arminian (very small synergism in willing youself to believe) view of it. I personally believe justification being more monergistic during the Reformation probably ties into why there became a distinguishment between justification and being regenerate for the first time (as McGrath also says).

Now, here’s the major reason I would argue that Ambrosiaster held to solafide (=justification apart from any works righteousness). It’s the same reason I would exegete it from Rom 3 Biblically. On Rom 3:20 he includes the natural law (moral law) to be part of the law which condemns the world. On Rom 3:21, when commenting on the law that we’re justified apart from, he not only includes the sabbath, the circumcision, the new moon, but also revenge, and revenge is part of the moral law (6th and 10th commandments). Further, his commentary on Rom 7:7 includes the moral law, and this is also part of the law which condemns (c.f. 7:6).

Also, it does no good for Catholics to just quote his commentary on 1:11, which says, “For the mercy of God had been given for this reason, that they should cease from the works of the law, as I have often said, because God, taking pity on our weaknesses, decreed that the human race would be saved by faith alone, along with the natural law.”

Catholics will argue that Ambrosiaster believes in justification via works righteousness since he says we’re saved “along with the natural law”. (1) Ambrosiaster says in this verse we’re saved by “faith alone”, thus it being “alone” would absolutely negate works. (2) He also says the exact opposite about 3:24, “they are justified freely, because they have not done anything nor given anything in return, but by faith alone they have been made holy by the gift of God.”

Just reciting trump quotes doesn’t do anyone any good when seemingly contradictory statements are also made by the same person, and when further clarifications are given.

Further, on Rom 8:4 he says, “Those who have been justified are friends of the law. For how is this righteousness fulfilled in us unless the forgiveness of sins is given to us, so that once we have been justified by the removal of our sins we might serve the law of God with our minds?”

Just as the Reformers emphatically taught, so Ambrosiaster interpreted Scripture in that those whom are justified will do good works. Can we read 1:11 in light of all this? I believe we can.

Lastly, going back to McGrath, he says that certain aspects of the doctrine of  justification were new during the Reformation. What should shock modern Catholics is not the fact that solafide wasn’t fully articulated until the Reformation, but that solafide has more traces during the patristic era than Rome’s current gospel, namely, being required to believe that Mary was sinless.

Here is a link that clears up many of the false assumptions about McGrath’s ‘Iustitia Dei’. You can even listen to the audio where McGrath was on BAM and clarifies that the Reformation was “a rediscovery of what justification is all about” and that it was “something the church had lost”.  A further examination of ‘Iustitia Dei’ will demonstrate that justification by works righteousness was enormously influenced by the fact that Augustine didn’t know Greek and interpreted “justification” based on the Latin Vulgate, not the Greek NT. It further shows there was no defined doctrine of justification for the first 350 years of the church, nor was there full agreement by Rome immediately after Trent’s clarifications (as the church had to agree on how to interpret Trent), which is otherwise alleged by many Catholics.

If Catholics are going to believe all of ‘Iustitia Dei’ then they undermine the RCC. If they are only going to believe parts of it then it’s a double standard when they force Protestants to believe everything that Protestant scholars say.



  1. Great info regarding Ambrosiaster. Of course, you realize that he’s in agreement with Thomas Aquinas, Clement, and other church fathers that used the term “faith alone” or spoke about it. Check out Clement 32.

    Pelagius railed against faith alone, illustrating that the term was in common use in his day.

    • Actually pelgius in his commentary for Romans used “sola fide” not in a phrase where he rejects ut

  2. I know about Clement, however, I’ve never actually found where Aguinas teaches solafide. I’ve heard Sproul say that, but have never read the source or been given a source. I’ve read good articles by Catholics that he didn’t teach that. Do you know a source that has him teaching it? I’d really like to know.

    That’s very interesting to know about Pelagius.

  3. Thomas Aquinas, Expositio in Ep. 1 ad Timotheum cap.1, lect.3 (Parma ed, 13.558)

  4. Huron, thanks. I’ll look into it. I’m also going to town on whether or not Ambrosiaster believed solafide with some Catholics here:


  5. Glad I could help.

    I saw your conversation on CCF. By the way, where is your discussion on James 2? I’d like to read it.

  6. https://restorethegospel.wordpress.com/2008/03/01/does-romans-328-contradict-james-224/

    I give a link on there where I argue the issue on catholic-forum.com. Some of my arguments have been slightly tweaked since that discussion. What I have on my blog post now covers all arguments I’ve ever heard and read up to this point. Let me know what you think.

    • Oh hey you are one of those internet Calvinists! It’s no wonder why you are trying to argue the early Christians are one of your kind!

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