Justification in the Early Church – 13 – Ambrosiaster

200 Early Church pic

Welcome to this series of posts giving a survey of what the early church fathers have written about justification and works of law with reference to Paul. Click this link to go to the first post with the contents of the whole.

In today’s post we look at the Romans Commentary written by someone called ‘Ambrosiaster’. For a long while he was mistakenly identified as another early church father named Ambrose, but in the 17th century this assumption was disproved. His true identity is not known. Internal evidence dates the creation of the commentary during the papacy of Pope Damasus I (c.e. 366-384).

McGrath says about the work,

“The earliest known Latin commentary upon the Pauline epistles is that of Ambrosiaster. Most modern commentators on this important work recognise that its exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith is grounded in the contrast between Christianity and Judaism; there is no trace of a more universal interpretation of justification by faith meaning freedom from a law of works – merely freedom from the Jewish ceremonial law. The Pauline doctrine of freedom from the works of the law is given a specific historical context by Ambrosiaster, in the Jewish background ground to Christianity. ” (p36, Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification)

Commentary on Romans

Saved by faith alone

Rom 1.11

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you,

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

… From this we learn that in the preceding verses it was not the content of their faith that he had praised, but their readiness and devotion to Christ. Though calling themselves Christians, they acted just as if they were under the law, as that had been handed down to them. For the mercy of God had been given for this reason: that they should give up the works of the law, as I have often said, because God, taking pity on our weakness, decreed that the human race was saved by faith alone, along with the natural law.

Ambrosiaster says Paul commends them because they gave up the ‘works of the law’ and that they were saved by faith alone. Ambrosiaster will give a couple definitions for the works of law below.

In addition to faith alone he says, ‘along with the natural law’. He is not clear afterwards what he means by the expression. The natural law is often used to describe the Lord’s universal moral decrees and the decalogue.

The righteousness of God revealed in the gospel

Rom 1.17

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith to faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

Paul says this because the righteousness of God is revealed in the person who believes; whether Jew or Greek. He calls it the righteousness of God because God freely justifies the ungodly by faith, without the works of the law, just as he says elsewhere:

‘That I may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith’,

He says that this same righteousness is revealed in the gospel, when God grants faith to man, through which he may be justified.

The truth and righteousness of God is revealed when a person believes and confesses. The righteousness of God, because of what he promised, he gave. Whoever believes that he has received what God has promised through his prophets proves that God is just and is a witness of his righteousness.

Through faith for faith. What does this mean, except that the faith of God is in him because he promised, and the faith of man is in him because he believes the one who promises, so that through the faith of the God who promises the righteousness of God might be revealed in the faith of the man who believes?

Ambrosiaster associates the righteousness of God with his covenant promises. God is said to be righteous and just when he acts to fulfill his promises. Believers believe in God and the trustworthiness of his promises.

‘All’ does not mean every last person

Rom 3.18

‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

The prophet Jeremiah also referred to all these people when he said:

‘Then they all rose up against the prophet of the Lord and wanted to kill him.’ (Jer 26.8)

and then a little later:

‘Not all the people went along with this.’ (Jer 26.16)

Paul therefore uses the word all have turned away, he does not mean every last person, but only that part of the people which contained all the wicked ones.

Ambrosiaster is referring to Paul’s use of ‘all’ in Rom 3.12, ‘All have tuned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’

This here is the natural law

Rom 3.20

For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

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 declared 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 justified before God, is not in them. …

By faith the law is abolished, and faith then follows. What then is the law, through which he says that sin is made known? Made known how? … In what way then, did sin lie dormant?

In fact the law has three parts to it.

The first part concerns the mystery of God’s divinity;

The second is what is fitting according to natural law, which forbids sin, and

the third is the deeds of the law, in other words, sabbaths, new moons, circumcision, et cetera.

This here is the natural law, which was partly reformed and partly confirmed by Moses, which made sin known to those who were bound in wickedness. … The law shows the coming judgment of God and that no sinner will escape punishment,

Ambrosiaster says there are three parts to the law of Moses. One of which he calls the ‘deeds of the law’ (aka works of the law), including the sabbaths, new moons and circumcision.

Ambrosiaster believes the reference to ‘works of law’ in Rom 3.20 is the natural law. Following a similar line as Origen did.

Apart from the law

Rom 3.21

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and prophets bear witness to it,

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

It is clear that the righteousness of God has now appeared apart from the law, but this means apart from the law of the sabbath, the circumcision, the new moon and revenge,

not apart from the sacrament of God’s divinity, because the righteousness of God is all about God’s divinity. For when the law held them guilty, the righteousness of God forgave them, and did so apart from the law, so that until the law was brought to bear, God forgave them their sin.

And lest someone think that this was done against the law, Paul added that the righteousness of God had a witness in the law and the prophets, which means that the law itself had said that in the future someone would come who would save mankind. But the law had no authority to forgive sin.

Therefore what is called the righteousness of God appears to be mercy, because it has its origin in the promise, and when God’s promise is fulfilled, it is called the righteousness of God. For it is righteousness when what is promised is delivered.

And when God accepts those who flee to him for refuge, this is called righteousness, because wickedness would not accept such people.

God righteousness is displayed apart from the law, by which Ambrosiaster understands Paul to be referring to the sabbath, circumcision, the new moon and the revenge.

Ambrosiaster interweaves God’s faithfulness to his promises with the mercy he has when people come to him and find forgiveness.

This faith looked for a future salvation

Rom 3.22-23

The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

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 Christ that the gift long ago promised by God is acknowledged and received.

Because Paul had said that the righteousness of God was over everyone, both Jews and Greeks, he added this verse in order to prove his point. For he says: All have sinned.

This must be understood in universal terms, which is why he added: There is no distinction.

For all here includes even the saints, in order to show that nobody can keep the law without faith. For the law was given in such a way that faith was also contained in it, and this faith looked for a future salvation.

Thus the death of Christ benefits everyone, because both here in this world, it has taught what is to be believed and observed, and it has delivered everyone from hell.

Ambrosiaster speaks about the content of a person’s faith. It comprehends the revelation of Christ promised by God and looks forward to a future salvation. The righteousness of God is for all, both Jews and Greeks.

By faith alone they have been made holy

Rom 3.24

they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

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. Paul testifies that the grace of God is in Christ, because we have been redeemed by Christ according to the will of God, so that once set free we may be justified, as he says to the Galatians:

Christ redeemed us by offering himself for us. (Gal 3.13)

Ambrosiaster refers to faith alone again. When sinners come to God in faith, they bring nothing else, they have done nothing else. God makes them holy by grace.

I will forgive their iniquity

Rom 3.25

whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins;

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

Paul says this, because in Christ God put forward, in other words, appointed, himself as a future expiation for the human race, if they believed. This expiation was by his blood, because we have been set free by his death, so that God might reveal him and condemn death by his passion. This was in order to make his promise clear, by which he set us free from sin, as he had promised before. And when he fulfilled his promise, he showed himself to be righteous.

God knew the purpose of his loving kindness, by which he determined to come to the rescue of sinners, both those living on earth and those who were bound in hell. He waited a very long time for both, nullifying the sentence by which it seemed just that everyone should be condemned, in order to show us that long ago he had decided to liberate the human race, as he promised through Jeremiah the prophet, saying: I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more (Jer 31.34).

And in case it might be thought that this promise was for the Jews only, he said through Isaiah: My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa 56.7).

For although the promise was made to the Jews, God knew in advance that the ungodly Jews would reject his gift and therefore he promised that he would allow the Gentiles to share in his grace, at the sight of which the ungodly Jews would be angered.

Ambrosiaster again highlights his understanding the righteousness of God refers to God fulfilling his covenant promises by forgiving iniquity and resolving not to remember people’s sin.

He acknowledges the promises were made to the Jews, but apply to both Jews and Gentiles.

justified by faith apart from works of law

Rom 3.28

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

Paul says that a Gentile can be sure he is justified by faith without doing the works of the law, in other words, without circumcision or new moons or the veneration of the sabbath.

Earlier in Rom 3.20 Ambrosiaster defined ‘works of law’ as the natural law. Now he gives a new definition. The third part of the law – circumcision, new moons and the sabbath. He probably would include ‘revenge’ (sacrifices) as well.

faith in the promise and believing Jesus is the promised Christ

Rom 3.30

Since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

By the circumcised, Paul means the Jews who have been justified by their faith in the promise and who believe that Jesus is the Christ whom God had promised in the law.

By the uncircumcised, he means the Gentiles who have been justified with God by their faith in Christ.

Thus God has justified both Jews and Gentiles. For because God is one, everyone has been justified in the same way. What benefit is there in circumcision? Or what disadvantage is there in uncircumcision, when only faith produces worthiness and merit?

Ambrosiaster says believing Jesus is the Christ promised in the law is important for justification.

He defines what Paul means by circumcised and uncircumcised, saying both Jews and Gentiles are justified in the same way.

Gentile who believes without doing works of law

Rom 4.5

And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

This refers to somebody who is bound in sin and who therefore does not do what the law commands. Paul says this because to an ungodly person, that is, to a Gentile, who believes in Christ without doing the works of the law, his faith is reckoned for righteousness just as Abraham’s was.

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.

Ambrosiaster defines the ungodly person in ethnic terms as opposed to moral terms. He says the Gentile who believes is the same Abraham who believed.

He continues to stress faith alone is the criterion for justification and salvation.

He associates Paul’s use of works with the works of the law. He questions the Jews who think they are justified by the works of law when they also have access to the scripture which says Abraham was justified by faith alone.

faith is the gift of God’s mercy

Rom 4.15

For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

In order to show that no man can be justified before God by the law, nor can the promise be given through the law, Paul says that the law brings wrath. It was given in order to make transgressors guilty.

But faith is the gift of God’s mercy, so that those who have been made guilty by the law may obtain forgiveness. Therefore faith brings joy.

Paul does not speak against the law, but gives priority to faith, because it is not possible to be saved by the law, but we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

Therefore the law is not itself wrath, but it brings wrath, in other words, punishment, to the sinner, for wrath is born from sin. For this reason Paul wants the law to be abandoned so that the sinner will take refuge in faith, which forgives sins, that he may be saved. …

For those who were sinners because they had transgressed the law are now justified. For the law of works has ceased, that is, the observance of sabbaths, new moons, circumcision, distinction of foods, and the expiation by a dead animal or the blood of a weasel.

Ambrosiaster says faith is a gift of God’s mercy. Faith is a gift. People cannot come to believe of their own will. Faith is given out of God’s mercy. Without it people would be outstanding sins and subject to God’s wrath.

Ambrosiaster we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

He says the law brings wrath and punishment to sinners. For this reason he say Paul wants sinners to abandon the law of Moses and take refuge in faith. Earlier he said faith is a gift. Now he assumes faith is a choice a person makes.

He specifically associates his understanding of the works of law with the law of Moses.

the righteousness which is commanded in the law

Rom 9.31

but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

Faith is the fulfilling of the law. It is because the Gentiles have faith that they appear to fulfill the whole law. But since the Jews, out of envy, did not believe in the Saviour, claiming instead the righteousness which is commanded in the law, in other words, the sabbath, circumcision, et cetera. they never arrived at the law.

In other words, they did not fulfill the law, and those who do not fulfill the law are guilty of it. The person who fulfills the law is the one who comes from the law of Moses to the faith of Christ.

Ambrosiaster says the righteousness commanded in the law is the sabbath, circumcision, et cetera. In other words what he has defined as the works of law.

Judgment of the Gospel

Rom 10.9-10

because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

Ambrosiaster’s Interpretation

What Paul spoke about above he now makes clear, that the rule of faith is to believe that Jesus is Lord and not to be ashamed to confess that God raised him from the dead and has taken him up to heaven with his body, whence he will come to be incarnate.

The person who believes this will not incur the judgment of the Gospel, which says:

Many, even of the authorities, believed in him, but for fear of the Jews they did confess it openly, for they preferred the glory of men to the glory of God (Jn 12.42-43).

Ambrosiaster like many early church fathers believes the Gospel is the story of Jesus. Here he quotes from the gospel according to John.

In the next post we look at Pelagius (c.e. 360-418). Pelagius held many orthodox beliefs typical of the early church including the virgin birth, that Jesus is the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s role in the future judgment.

He is famous because of his debate with Augustine of Hippo (next post) over predestination, free-will and the unassisted abilities of mankind prior to salvation.

I list what we may hold to be true of his beliefs and what we may argue is false in order that we may not throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to what he says about justification and works of law. We will be looking at his commentary on Romans.

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