Creeds of the Kehillah ~ Part 32

The Nicene Creed~ Part 18

In our last post, we continued to explore the Nicene Creed. In this post, we continue to dig into the third article of faith in the Nicene Creed.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son, He is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

THE GIVER OF LIFE ~ In Justification

As we learned in our last post, Repentance precedes Justification in the sense that it prepares the heart to receive God’s gracious gift of forgiveness by tearing down any notion of self-justification. Through Repentance, the Ruach humbles the heart to recognize its sinful state and its need to receive God’s mercy of forgiveness without any merit or worthiness. Such a person is declared innocent from the guilt and punishment that sin would otherwise demand. He or she is declared justified before God. Justification is not defined here as making someone ethically righteous or changing behavior, although this may and should result from Justification. Justification is defined as a declaration of innocence, similar to when a judge pronounces a person not guilty – sometimes referred to as forensic Justification because of the courtroom metaphor.

The question, historically speaking, is whether this forensic Justification is what the ancient Messianic writers understood. Some assert that the forensic understanding of Justification was a product of the sixteenth century and that the ancient Messianic writers understood Justification as a process of transformation. It is clear that the Fathers use the word justify in several senses and not always consistently – which is not so much a critique as a reflection of the fact that they were not writing treatises on this particular doctrine.

At best, the teaching of Justification is scattered throughout the patristic period, permeating letters, sermons, patristic exegesis, [1] and doctrinal controversies. For instance, one of the earliest post-apostolic writers, Clement of Rome, wrote a letter to the Corinthians that has within it a clear enunciation of the doctrine of Justification. But this was not the primary reason for him writing the letter, the composition of which was primarily to call for unity among a divided church. In general, the first centuries of the post-apostolic church are characterized by episodic discussions of Salvation, Justification, and the role of the will in response to the Gnostic and Manichean dualism that pitted the Tanach against the new in heretics such as Marcion. These heretics also made God the author of evil. Patristic writers such as Irenaeus and Origen sought to defend God against such accusations, placing the blame squarely on human beings for the fall into sin and the subsequent actions resulting from the Fall. Thus, sometimes we see what might appear to be an overly optimistic view of the capability of the will in light of the later Augustinian discussion on the fallen will that is captive to sin. However, read in the light of the polemics of their day, such an emphasis on human responsibility is understandable and might even be deemed necessary.

In the Messianic East, the doctrine of Justification is present in all the major writers and is not foreign to their thinking, as some assume. It is true that the first real controversy that helped begin to clarify the doctrine of Justification was the controversy with Pelagius in the late fourth century and following with Augustine, Jerome, and others. Its focus was more directly on the role of the will in human conversion – an issue very much related to the doctrine of Justification but not identical with it. And so, it is difficult to say here that Augustine clarified the doctrine of Justification per se, although he did help clarify many aspects of it. Perhaps the closest we come to a discussion of the doctrine are the commentaries on the Pauline letters by some of the writers of this period, such as Marius Victorinus, Ambrosiaster, and even Pelagius. Even though these are not meant to be systematic treatises, many of these commentaries show a profound understanding of Sha’ul’s teaching on Justification that would be reflected in later interpretations of the reformation period.

Thus, when the Reformers of the sixteenth century expounded their doctrine of Justification, they appealed to church fathers from the West, such as Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose or Ambrosiaster, but also from the East, citing Basil, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa, among others, to show that this doctrine on which they believed the church stood or fell was nothing new. It had always been taught throughout the church’s history. Just as other doctrines such as the divinity of Yeshua or the Ruach were further clarified in the face of controversy, so too was this doctrine further clarified, albeit in the sixteenth century.

The ancient Messianic writers looked at the whole of Scripture when dealing with Justification. They identified the failure of Justification under the law but also knew of the triumph of Grace under the Gospel in Yeshua, who is our righteousness. He brings us forgiveness and restores us to God’s favor, uniting us with Yeshua. We receive this gift of favor in the forgiveness of sins through faith in Yeshuaa faith that they understood as the consent of the mind, the trust of the heart, and a decision of the will moved by the Ruach. The Ruach then continues to work in the heart of faith to elicit a response of good works that operate through faith, hope, and love.[2]

In my next post, we continue to dig into the third article of the Nicene Creed: We Believe in The Holy Spirt.

Click here for the PDF version.

[1] Exegesis is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text. Traditionally the term was used primarily for work with the Bible.

[2] Elowsky, J. C., & Oden, T. C. (Eds.). (2009). We Believe in the Holy Spirit (Vol. 4, pp. 37–38).

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