Many Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists assert that Protestant doctrines such as “Faith Alone” are novelties. However, this often comes at the cost of ignoring very plain statements of many men in the early Church.
One interesting case of a theologian who argued in favor of sola fide is Marius Victorinus. A trained Neo-Platonist philosopher he was so famous and widely published that when Augustine read Aristotle as a child, well guess what…Victornius was the translator!
Victorinus was probably the first super-heavyweight intellectual converted to Christianity. While great thinkers that came before him (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, etcetera), they did not have the widespread acclaim nor secular achievements that Victorinus did. The story about how Victorinus went from respected philosopher to Christian is covered in detail in Book XII of Augustine’s Confessions.
Now, this does not make Victorinus a better theologian. However, he was notable enough that when he undertook a litany of commentaries on Paul’s Epistles (the very first, especially in Latin), immediately afterward several men began trying to best him or improve upon his work. This includes Ambrosiaster, Jerome, Chrysostom, Augustine, among others roughly in that order.
This should lead us to two important points:
- Being that Victorinus is first, if you want to know what the oldest traditional interpretation was, he’s the guy to go to.
- Being that no one subsequently declared Victorinus, or his methods, heretical or “untraditional,” his conclusions were considered within the pale of Orthodoxy.
The fact that Jerome and Augustine carefully responded to Victorinus on points showed that his exegesis was something that was respected and had to be responded to with care. Further, most of the disagreement was not on the issue of faith, but on Victorinus’ interpretation of Paul’s disagreement with Peter…so, they were not seeking to correct him on the issue we are concerning ourselves with here.
So, what did Victorinus write? Presently, I have only got “my hands on” his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. In the translator’s notes, it appears the Victorinus pretty much said the same stuff in his other commentaries about several important things. I would like to return to Victorinus in the future, but for now we will just cover pertinent points of his Galatians commentary:
There is no great difficulty in obtaining his grace, if we just follow him, believing that he accomplished these things by his Mystery and that he did it gratis, without labour or great works. Because this was accomplished for us by him (In reference to Gal 1:6).
Grace requires no works and righteousness is accomplished by Him, not us.
After these points, Paul gives other arguments that justification comes about based on Christ, not on the Law or on works (Gal 1:12).
Victorinus understood Paul properly. Paul wasn’t just writing against the Jewish Law, but the idea that any good work that a man does puts God in his debt. Such doctrine Paul calls “accursed.”
Because when he said he saw no one else of the apostles except James, the reason was also included why he saw James: the Lord’s brother, the one regarded as his brother according to the flesh (Gal 1:19).
Victorinus appears to be in agreement with Tertullian that Mary’s virginity was not perpetual.
For faith itself alone grants justification and sanctification. Thus any flesh whatsoever—Jews or those from the Gentiles—is justified on the basis of faith, not works or observance of the Jewish Law (Gal 2:16).
Again, both works and the Law are two mutually exclusive things and neither avail a man.
This is truly to live spiritually: that although one lives in the flesh, one does not live on account of the flesh or based on the flesh. Rather, one lives to God and to Christ by faith in them. This is what it means to live spiritually: to meditate on Christ, to speak of him, to believe him, to direct one’s desires toward him; to flee the world, to expel from one’s mind all things which are in the world. This is what it means to live by faith: to hope for no other good than what is from Christ and from God (Gal 2:20).
Faith works through love, but it is thoughts of the mind more than the actions of the body that are emphasized. Further, “one does not live on account of the flesh” because one must account oneself as spiritual. Therefore, we live according to the Spirit as a matter of living up to what we have already had accomplished in us, not in order to earn something.
For then will it have been enacted on our behalf, enacted for our resurrection and liberation, if we but have faith in Christ and in the Mystery of Christ. For by this treatment of Abraham, the divine reality set out beforehand and gave advance notice that human beings would be justified based on faith. As it was accounted to Abraham as justice, then, because he had faith, therefore, if we have faith in Christ and his whole Mystery, we too will be children of Abraham. This means that our whole life will be accounted to us as justice (Gal 3:7).
If we have faith, our whole life is accounted as just. It’s an imputed, forensic righteousness, so that upon the judgment of works we have a perfect record in Christ!
He [Paul] aims to prevent the Galatians from…believing that as long as they retained faith in Christ, something further could still be advantageous for them, if they would perform something based on works as well. To the contrary, the apostle denies that any blessing comes about on the basis of works; he states rather—and this is even more serious, and opposed to a blessing— that those who carry on their lives based on works are under a curse (Gal 3:9).
It is not Faith + Works according to Victorinus. Here, he categorically denies it.
For all things come about on the basis of faith: the promise was given to Abraham based on faith, and thus to his seed as well (Gal 3:20).
All things come about on the basis of faith–did Luther write that? Oh wait, no, this is from the fourth century.
Now, because you are one with the reception of the Spirit from Christ, you are Christ. You are therefore sons of God in Christ (Gal 3:29).
Victorinus makes an important point–when we have faith, we have the Holy Spirit. Indwelt with the Spirit, God literally accounts us as His Son, as the Spirit puts us in a literal union with Him and shares all His qualities.
But you have been baptized in Christ Jesus, you have received Christ, and you are Christ; you are therefore the seed of Abraham. If an inheritance was promised to the seed, the inheritance was given to you as well, and you are heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:30).
We “are Christ,” so upon the judgment we are judged as righteous in Christ.
Because Mary is or was a virgin… (Gal 4:4)
Again, Victorinus voices doubts that Mary was perpetually a Virign…Perhaps he would be considered a heretic today by modern Catholics while in Augustine’s day he was a great hero of the Christian faith.
Because Christ, although he himself was what those under the Law were, taught in a different manner, and for the sake of salvation departed from the Law by not observing the sabbath and other things. From this they would know not to hope for salvation based on the Law or its works. Whence the Galatians too might understand that they have fallen into an error, if indeed the Saviour himself, in whom they have believed, was made under the Law, though nevertheless not subservient to it. (Gal 4:4).
Victorinus, as do several other Church Fathers, believe that Jesus broke the Law when He did not follow Sabbath observances. I disagree obviously. If Paul meant this, he would have just said it and it would have settled the issue. Because he didn’t, it pretty much proves that Christ was fully obedient to the Law.
If one is given the name son, according to the previous discussion, one is also an heir, not, though, by things done or by one’s works, rather by the mercy and grace of God. This is Paul’s implication, that it is rather through God, just as has been demonstrated in many passages: that it is not of the one who runs but of the one who shows mercy, and that all things are through the grace of God (Gal 4:7).
Our righteousness comes from God, not by what we do.
Although they accepted Christ from Paul, and they took up faith in Christ (and this is the true gospel), they clearly supposed that they were not going to get enough from Christ—which already smacks of blasphemy and their lack of faith. This is why after the acceptance of Christ, they desired to get circumcised and devote themselves to the Law and its workings. If this is the situation, their faith in Christ is non-existent; because if there is a lack of faith, or the presence of a little and therefore practically non-existent faith, that would be the basis for adding on some other potentially beneficial thing. Rightly, Paul says Christ will avail you nothing (Gal 5:2).
Victorinus issues a warning: adding anything to faith makes faith “non-existent.” If you think that faith alone is not enough to cover your sins, then “Christ will avail you nothing.” If you find yourself as one of those people, repent and trust in Christ.
For the whole power of the Mystery has worked to this effect: that an indulgence of sins would come about for us through the grace and mercy of God, and that eternal life would be supplied, as we have often taught, on the basis of God’s grace, not works or merits. But this happens through the Spirit. On the other hand, when one hopes for justification on the basis of one’s works, the hope is not based on the Spirit. Hope based on the Spirit is what we await, and this is what it means to follow the gospel of Christ (Gal 5:5).
Forgiveness of sins is not by works, but through the work of the Holy Spirit. So, if we give alms, confess, or do anything else as a fruit of the Spirit, we do well. If we do these things because we think that if we don’t we won’t attain forgiveness, then our hope is not based on the Spirit and there is no forgiveness of sins.
For faith liberates, and anyone, as we have said, who hopes for help in any way besides Christ, even if it be along with Christ, does not have faith (Gal 5:9).
The scariest words for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are the above. Even if you account yourself as in Christ, if you hope in anything else other than faith you do not have faith. And, if you do not have faith you are still dead in your sins.
Please prayerfully consider what Victorinus wrote. Go ahead and find Jerome’s and Augustine’s commentary. You will not find them contradicting the above. The above once was fully accepted Catholic faith and it caused little controversy. Now, it would be considered heretical. Was Victorinus a heretic though no one thought him to be in the early Church or are your faiths greatly deviated from the historic, universal faith of the Church? Pray to the Lord for wisdom and do your research!