People like to cite Rom 2:12-15 as “evidence” that unreached pagans may be saved via the “law” written in their own hearts. Those who take this view are popularly said to be expounding the doctrine of “invincible ignorance.” Even though that specific doctrine may be understood in a different ways, any understanding that says the unreached can be saved without hearing/understanding the Gospel cannot summon the patristic understanding of Romans 2 to its defense.
In order to understand Romans, there are two key concepts taught by the early church fathers that must be understood: “the Law” versus the “Law of Nature.” While a book-length commentary would be necessary to fully flesh these concepts out, permit us the following short synopsis.
The Law of Nature and the Context of Rom 2. The predicament that mankind faces is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The standard which men are measured against is called the “Law.” There is the Mosaic “Law” (simply called “Law” by the fathers) and the “Law of Nature” which is composed of universal morals/ethics revealed in nature that all men are liable to follow. Here is a short spattering of fathers on the topic of “the Law of Nature:”
Propose to yourself to distinguish what rules were from the law of nature, and what were added afterwards, or were such additional rules as were introduced and given in the wilderness to the Israelites…for our Saviour came for no other reason but that He might deliver those that were obnoxious thereto from the wrath which was reserved far them, that He might fulfil the Law and the Prophets, and that He might abrogate or change those secondary bonds which were superadded to the rest of the law (Apostolic Constitutions, Book I, Par 6; see also Apostolic Constitutions, Book VI, Par 12).
For the natural Law may agree with the Law of Moses in the spirit, if not the letter…being justified not according to the letter of the Law, which in any case is so difficult that nobody could ever do it correctly, but according to the Spirit [i.e.Rom 8:2] (Origen, Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Romans, p. 67).
If men had been able to keep the natural Law which God the Creator planted in the breast of each one, there would have been no need of the Law which, written on stone tablets, enmeshed and entangled the weakness of human nature rather than freed and liberated it (St Ambrose, Letters to Laymen 83).
[S]o great was this condescension, that the written Law even required less than the law of nature. For the law of nature ordered one man to associate with one woman throughout. And this Christ shows in the words,
He which made them at the beginning, made them male and female (St John Chyrsostom on Rom 7:25).
The preceding does not cover what every father said about the topic, but it does show that clearly the fathers took it as a given that there were two Laws at work, as I posited.
The Ramifications of the “Law.” As alluded to by Origen, the problem with the Law is that it cannot be fulfilled. Hence, at the judgement, we are guilty as Lawbreakers. Ambrose and Chrysostom even say that the Mosaic Law was made because no one was able to fulfill the Law of Nature. Being that no one was able to fulfill any Law, Christ came to save the ungodly, as alluded to by the Apostolic Constitutions and Origen’s reference to the Spirit.
Some may say this is “not clear enough” from the passages. Hopefully, the following passages, though not quoting every father on the topic, are clearer:
…before the actual preaching of the gospel reaches the ends of all the earth — because there are some remote nations still (although it is said they are very few) to whom the preached gospel has not found its way — what must human nature do…but believe in God who made heaven and earth, by whom also it perceived by nature that it had been itself created, and lead a right life, and thus accomplish His will, uninstructed with any faith in the death and resurrection of Christ? Well, if this could have been done, or can still be done, then for my part I have to say what the apostle said in regard to the law:
Then Christ died in vain. Galatians 2:21 For if he said this about the law, which only the nation of the Jews received, how much more justly may it be said of the law of nature, which the whole human race has received,
If righteousness come by nature, then Christ died in vain. If, however, Christ did not die in vain, then human nature cannot by any means be justified and redeemed from God’s most righteous wrath— in a word, from punishment — except by faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ (St Augustine, On Nature and Grace, Chapter 2).
For the good which
the law of nature
could not do, in that it was weak, being overcome by the lust which lies in the body, God gave strength to accomplish,
sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh; so that sin being condemned, to its destruction, so that it should never bear fruit in the flesh, the righteousness of the law of nature might be fulfilled (St Methodius of Olympus, From the Discourse on the Resurrection, Part III).
He had accused the Gentiles, he had accused the Jews; it came next in order to mention the righteousness which is by faith. For if the law of nature availed not, and the written Law was of no advantage, but both weighed down those that used them not aright, and made it plain that they were worthy of greater punishment, then after this the salvation which is by grace was necessary (St John Chrysostom on Rom 3:9-18).
The passage from Augustine makes clear that the Law of Nature is not an “out” for those who never heard the Gospel, but to the contrary, necessitates that the unreached need the Gospel to be saved. Methodius’ passage demonstrates that the way men are saved is through the work of Christ, as He fulfilled the Law of Nature (this is contrary to those who argue that those who somehow follow the Law of Nature are saved by their efforts.)
The last passage from Chrysostom makes clear that the discussion of the Laws serves the specific purpose of showing that both Jews and Gentiles are in need of grace because their respective Laws condemn them. This is because no one lives up to the Law with the exception of the Theotokos, even if (theoretically) perfect obedience from any of us is possible.
If it helps to understand how hard it is to be made righteous by any Law, simply try following your own conscience. If you cannot even do that, then you are a Lawbreaker by your own fallen standards, let alone God’s. This may be a news flash, but this is common to the human condition. No one follows their own conscience, let alone the Law of Nature.
What Do the Fathers Teach About Romans 2? Those who summon Romans 2 to their support for “invincible ignorance,” arguing that those who never have faith in Christ may be saved, are ignoring the Patristic interpretation of two of the key passages they cite.
Rom 2:12 states: “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.”
On that verse, Saint John Chrysostom writes in his commentary on Romans:
The Jew was even much burdened by the gift of the Law. For the Gentile is judged without law…For
without law (that is, without the condemnation arising from it), is he condemned solely from the reasonings of nature, but the Jew,
in the Law, that is, with nature and the Law too to accuse him.
Elsewhere, Chrysostom writes:
They shall perish without law? The law not accusing them, but their thoughts, and their conscience; for if they had not a law of conscience, it were not necessary that they should perish through having done amiss…If, then, he had not heard the law, nor conversed with the Jews, how could there be wrath, indignation and tribulation against him for working evil? The reason is, that he possessed a conscience inwardly admonishing him, and teaching him, and instructing him in all things (Homily 12 on the Statues, Par. 13-14).
Saint Augustine writes on the passage:
Now the apostle does not appear to me to have said this as if he meant that they would have to suffer something worse who in their sins are ignorant of the law than they who know it…But even the ignorance, which is not theirs who refuse to know, but theirs who are, as it were, simply ignorant, does not so far excuse any one as to exempt him from the punishment of eternal fire, though his failure to believe has been the result of his not having at all heard what he should believe; but probably only so far as to mitigate his punishment (On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 5).
Theodoret of Cyrus, who is not venerated as a saint, has a similar interpretation:
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law, shall be judged by the law. God, says he, is the Maker of all, and therefore the Judge of all; and the Jews then will he take account of, and condemn, according to the Mosaic code, but those that have never received it, whom he means by the without law, and their sin, He will justly punish according to the knowledge of good and evil implanted in their nature.
The Gentiles are also under the judgement of the natural Law…mere avoidance of evil will not gain them any advantage with God unless they also believe in God…The Gentiles even if they keep the natural Law will perish if they do not accept the faith of Christ (Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Romans, p. 65).
Another verse people like to misappropriate is Rom 2:15–“…the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.” Likewise, the fathers do not read into this verse that anyone, by being “excused,” may actually be saved by the Law of Nature.
Augustine writes on the verse:
Should those be strangers to His grace of whom we are treating, and who (after the manner of which we have spoken with sufficient fullness already)
do by nature the things contained in the law, of what use will be their
excusing thoughts to them
in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, unless it be perhaps to procure for them a milder punishment (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chap 48)?
For then our reasonings stand up, some accusing and some excusing. And at that tribunal a man needs no other accuser…Now let each man enter into his own conscience, and reckoning up his transgressions, let him call himself to a strict account, that we be not then condemned with the world.
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem writes:
Out of your own conscience shall you be judged, your thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men Romans 2:15-16 . The terrible countenance of the Judge will force you to speak the truth; or rather, even though thou speak not, it will convict you (Catechitcal Lecture 15, Par 25).
It is Christians to whom Paul is referring when he speaks of accusing and excusing on the day of judgement. Those who differ from the true Church, either because they think differently about Christ or because they disagree about the meaning of the Bible in the tradition of the Church will be accused by their own thoughts on the day of judgement (Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Romans, p. 69).
In the preceding, or in any treatment of the topic by any early church father, what I cannot dig up is anyone who teaches anything supporting invincible ignorance. Instead, they all view the verses as warnings about God’s judgement.
Rom 2 is read as teaching that the Law of Nature, like the Mosaic Law, condemns those who never heard of the Law because all men break it (with the exception of Ambrosiaster, who sees its also condemning schismatics). The “unreached” are not given a pass for not hearing the Gospel. Rather, when their fate is commented upon by Augustine, their condemnation is said to be not as profound.
Conclusion. Those who cite any passage in Rom 2 as “opening the door” for God “maybe” (which by this they actually mean “probably” or “definitely”) saves those who “it would not be right to condemn because they never had the chance to hear the Gospel” simply:
- Are not being mindful that the fathers do not exegete Rom 2 in the same way.
- Nor cognizant that whenever the fathers address the topic of the unreached in such passages, they appear to take the view that they stand condemned under the “Law of Nature.”
Exegetically, those seeking to find an “out” for the unreached do not understand the whole context that undergirds the Law in Romans. By departing from the teaching of the fathers, in my honest opinion, they depart from the Gospel as best as I can understand it. In effect, they teach salvation by works, divorced from Christ, as a possibility.
Speaking categorically, God does not save those who hear the Gospel through faith and those who have not by whether they were real nice fellas according to the Law of Nature. No. All must be saved through faith and union with Christ. “No one can come to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). Exactly how faith and union with Christ are achieved in every circumstance is another discussion. Nevertheless, to depart from this is to depart from the faith delivered once and for all to the saints and maintained by the Church for centuries.