Nathan Busenitz. Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel from Christ to the Reformation. Moody Publishers, Master’s Seminary Press, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Nathan Busenitz has a doctorate in church history from the Master’s Seminary, with the focus of his doctorate being patristic theology.
In Long Before Luther, Busenitz argues against the view, held among Catholic and even some Protestant scholars, that the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone originated with the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone asserts that God forgives and considers righteous those who place their faith in Jesus Christ; after justification comes sanctification, which is living a holy life. Some Reformers liken justification to being clothed with the righteousness of Christ: Christ was punished as a sinner even though he was righteous, so those who believe in Christ are reckoned by God as righteous, even though they are sinners. When God looks at them them, God sees the righteousness of Christ that covers them, not their sins. The Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone is often believed to differ from the Catholic doctrine of justification. Whereas the Protestant doctrine states that sinners who believe in Jesus are reckoned as righteous by God at justification, the Catholic doctrine portrays justification more as God making people practically righteous, infusing into them righteous desires such that they live a holy life.
For Busenitz, the manner in which prominent Protestants have conceptualized justification existed long before the Protestant Reformation. Not only does it go back to the New Testament, Busenitz argues, but prominent Christian thinkers from the second century C.E. through Augustine and the medieval period made statements that resemble what Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, Phillip Melanchthon, and John Calvin taught about justification.
The book is abundant in quotes. Busenitz not only quotes significant Christian thinkers in the body of his text, but he has an appendix that lists quotes. Among the people Busenitz quotes are Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Bede, Symeon the New Theologian, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, and more.
Occasionally in the body of the book, Busenitz provides indications that the issue may be more complex. In discussing Augustine, Busenitz lays out the arguments that Augustine conceived of justification as God making people practically righteous rather than God declaring people righteous. Busenitz even acknowledges that, on some level, that is accurate, for Augustine interpreted the Latin term “iustificare” as making righteous rather than declaring righteous. Still, Busenitz argues, and demonstrates, that Augustine also portrays justification as God forgiving people’s sins and declaring them righteous when they have faith, apart from good works or merits on their part.
The endnotes are especially nuanced. Busenitz acknowledges that there were patristic thinkers who focused more on good works in their discussion of justification. He attempts to explain why patristic thinkers focused so much on good works, or were not always precise or crisp in their depiction of justification. Busenitz also points out that the Reformers differed among themselves in how they conceptualized justification.
One critique that can be made is that Busenitz could have been clearer and more specific about what is at stake in terms of this issue. He did try, but his explanation was brief and somewhat nebulous. What does it matter if justification by grace through faith alone was taught prior to the Reformation: if it is in the Bible, it is in the Bible, and is not that what is important? Why bother with what the church fathers taught, as if they are authoritative? So some Christians may argue. Actually, though, it is important. Do we really want to act as if the church lost something as serious as the Gospel for over a thousand years, until the Protestants came along? Do we want to assume that the Holy Spirit was inactive until the Protestant Reformation? Busenitz leans towards these explanations about why the issue is important, but he does not quite articulate them explicitly.
There were also significant issues that Busenitz should have explored. It is not surprising that, prior to the Reformation, there was a belief within Christianity that God acquitted believers of their sins, even though they did not deserve it. Catholics today believe that. But did the church fathers think, like Catholics, that believers somehow needed to maintain or renew that acquittal, through sacraments such as the Mass or acts of penitence? Did church fathers believe that a Christian could lose his or her salvation through unatoned mortal sin? These are issues to explore in trying to determine whether the church fathers were more similar to the Protestants or the Catholics on salvation. Busenitz briefly touched on penitence in an endnote, but, overall, these issues were left untouched.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Moody Publishers. My review is honest.