Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Alister McGrath, Justification, and Theological Novums
03/22/2007 - James SwanAlister McGrath was recently on the Bible Answer Man Show. A caller asked McGrath to clarify his position on justification, because a friend was converting to Eastern Orthodoxy from a Reformed church. This convert was citing McGrath's book, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. McGrath is cited as proof the Reformers invented justification by faith alone.
McGrath clarified his position on the Bible Answer Man show. McGrath states justification has been debated throughout church history. He also stated, "the Reformation represents a rediscovery of what justification is all about."
likewise, Roman Catholics frequenty quote this book as proof Luther introduced a "theological novum" into the history of the Western Church. Using McGrath is supposed to prove the Reformers deviated from the historic and apostolic Catholic understanding of justification, and a Protestant scholar (McGrath) admits it. Implied in this argument is the proposition that the Roman Catholic Church received her understanding of justification from the Apostles, and subsequent Church history records the passing on of its understanding to the Church Fathers, and then ultimately to its dogmatic proclamation at the Council of Trent.
If you have a Roman Catholic or Orthodox friend citing McGrath's book, ask him what McGrath's position is on Augustine. McGrath sees Augustine's view of justification as pivotal to the development of the Western church on this doctrine. McGrath notes, "For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate and ill-defined (Iustitia Dei, p.23). Augustine's view was similarly a theological novum. Who previous to Augustine understood the term exactly the way he did? So the same thing Roman Catholics accuse Luther and the Reformers of can likewise be applied to Augustine. Using McGrath's book as an argument against the Reformers is an example of a double standard, and also not reading carefully.
There is also a further problem of Catholic apologetic double standards. The Catholic apologists assume Trent was following the tradition of the church, and there was no teaching of faith alone previous to Luther. In other words, Luther invented justification by faith alone. It didn't exist until Luther. It can't be verified in church history. It cant be true. On the other hand, when the same historical standard is applied to certain Roman Catholic dogmas like Mary's bodily assumption, Purgatory, or indulgences, this same historical standard is swept under the rug and hidden. One has to seriously question why a standard Catholic apologists hold Protestants to is not likewise applied to their own beliefs. Wade through the corridors of church history and search for the threads of all Roman Catholic dogma. One falls flat linking many of them back to the early church and then to the ultimate rule of faith, the Bible.