If Martin Luther was the first Christian to come up with the idea that we are saved by faith in Christ alone, apart from any works, we would have reason to believe that his interpretation would be incorrect. After all, it shouldn’t take 1500 for someone to figure out something that important.
Thomas Aquinas centuries before Luther used the term “sola fide,” but not even he was the first!
I do not plan on defending the doctrine exhaustively here, but I will quote two men, hundreds of years before Luther and separated centuries between one another, who used the term ad verbatim.
John Chrysostom wrote the following in his Homily on Galatians 3:
Further, they were possessed with another apprehension; it was written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things that are written in the book of the Law, to do them. Deuteronomy 27:26 And this he removes, with great skill and prudence, turning their argument against themselves, and showing that those who relinquish the Law are not only not cursed, but blessed; and they who keep it, not only not blessed but cursed. They said that he who kept not the Law was cursed, but he proves that he who kept it was cursed, and he who kept it not, blessed. Again, they said that he who adhered to Faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to Faith alone, is blessed. And how does he prove all this? For it is no common thing which we have promised; wherefore it is necessary to give close attention to what follows. He had already shown this, by referring to the words spoken to the Patriarch, In you shall all nations be blessed, Genesis 12:4 at a time, that is, when Faith existed, not the Law; so he adds by way of conclusion,
Then, that they might not turn round, and object that, true it was Abraham was justified by Faith, for the Law was not then given, but what instance would be found of Faith justifying after the delivery of the Law? He addresses himself to this, and proves more than they required: namely, not only that Faith was justifying, but that the Law brought its adherents under a curse…For the Law requires not only Faith but works also, but grace saves and justifies by Faith.
Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Romans 4 wrote the following:
Therefore, that reward is not made as due, but as a gift. The answer is that human works can be considered in two ways. In one way, according to the substance of the works, and considered this way they do not have anything deserving [condignum] that the award of eternal glory should be given. In another way, they can be considered according to their source, namely, insofar as they are performed under God’s impulse in accord with the intention of God who predestines. And in this respect the aforesaid reward is due them by debt, because, as is stated below (8:14): “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God”; “and if sons, then heirs” (8:17).
Then (v. 5) he shows how the eternal award is related to faith, saying, but to one who does not work outward works, for example, because he does not have time to work, as in the case of one who dies immediately after baptism, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, namely, in God, of whom he says below (8:33): “It is God who justifies,” his faith is reckoned, i.e., faith alone without outward works, as righteousness, so that in virtue of it he is called just and receives the reward of justice, just as if he had done the works of justice, as he says below (10:10): “Man believes with his heart and so is justified,”according the purpose of the grace of God, i.e., accordingly as God proposes to save men gratuitously: “Who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28); “He accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).
I am sure there is much, much more out there. But this should be enough to get us started and thinking: was Luther really a lunatic that was coming up with something no one thought of before or was he reasserting the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages?
Many will point to James 2:24 that we are saved by works and not by faith alone, wrongly I may add. I’ll conclude with the following quotation:
“The works mentioned here [James 2:24] are works of faith. No one can have perfect works unless he has faith, but many have perfect faith without works, since they do not always have time to do them,” says Saint Bede.
Sure, he does not literally say “faith alone,” but “perfect faith without works” is close enough!