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I am looking for the quotes of early Church Fathers describing the ability of the law. Did they believe the law was never meant & able to justify or give life? In other words, it did not justify anyone before the coming of the promise (Christ). I am sure about the views of Augustine and Jerome that they didn't believe the law could ever give life, but I need some more quotes. I didn't see that view being shown clearly from John Chrysostom's Homily on Galatians 3:21. It would be great if you can share the views of early fathers with unambiguous quotes, and if possible, do share the Greek text as well. I suspect Jerome and Augustine along with Marcion might have been the first known leaders who taught that the law was never able to justify, rather than its temporal end due to the coming of Christ. Christ being the end of the law-righteousness. (Rom 10:4).

John Chrysostom quote from the Homilies of Chrysostom:

[Commentary - Galatians 3:21] Ver. 21. "For if there had been a law given which could make alive verily righteousness would have been of the Law."

His meaning is as follows; If we had our hope of life in the Law, and our salvation depended on it, the objection might be valid. But if it save you, by means of Faith, though it brings you under the curse, you suffer nothing from it, gain no harm, in that Faith comes and sets all right. Had the promise been by the Law, you had reasonably feared lest, separating from the Law, you should separate from righteousness, but if it was given in order to shut up all, that is, to convince all and expose their individual sins, far from excluding you from the promises, it now aids you in obtaining them. This is shown by the words,

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  • Please define precisely what you mean by "justify"
    – guest37
    Mar 27, 2022 at 22:53
  • @guest37 ignore if you don't understand
    – Michael16
    Mar 28, 2022 at 2:46
  • @Michael16 Can you clarify - are you looking for an overview of the church fathers belief? Or do you want specific quotes from the fathers saying that Moses’s law can/cannot justify?
    – Luke Hill
    Mar 31, 2022 at 16:21
  • @LukeHill not "cannot" but could never justify. I am looking for quotes as proof, preferebly with Greek. I won't mind an overview. Quotes before Augustine, Jerome.
    – Michael16
    Mar 31, 2022 at 16:31
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    Seems like you kind of have answered your own question pretty well. It would be hard to find anything in the Fathers in regards to being justified by the Law of Moses based on what saint Paul mentions about it in some of the epistles, but also in addition to other writings like Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho", the polemics against the Judaizers and Ebionites etc. Mar 31, 2022 at 22:01

2 Answers 2

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Have you followed the trail of Ezekiel in this? Ezekiel 20:25 in the ESV reads, “Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life.

It is not a simple matter of whether it can justify. God can act independently of His Own Laws. Abraham was justified but it was on faith. Now Abraham could follow the Law and be justified aside from the Law. [ I realize this is hypothetical ]

SOme of the whole Law was only given in view of the sinfulness of Israel and was not God's original intent, which appears to have been only the 10 Commandment, which are natural law almost totally, with the Sinaitic context only adding divine sanction to what was already rationally binding. Nobody heard that stealing is forbidden and said "wow, what a surprise"

I am following the thought of John Henry Newman in some of this. Though the natural law basis of the commandments is from Aquinas

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  • Neither Ezechiel, John Henry Newman nor Aquinas are "early Church Fathers"
    – eques
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:22
  • Eze 20:25 is a sarcasm or irony. God cannot lie and deceive. It is same as Eze 14:9, Isa. 29:13-14; 63:17. God is responsible for their falling into debasement, deception, because they deserved punishment/wrath due to their own hearts. Passive acts are shown as active, idiomatically. The law to be (always) useless is later Gentile/Roman view.
    – Michael16
    Jan 9, 2023 at 11:09
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Here's Justin Martyr circa 150 CE.

But we [believers], because we refuse to sacrifice to those to whom we were of old accustomed to sacrifice, undergo extreme penalties, and rejoice in death,—believing that God will raise us up by His Christ, and will make us incorruptible, and undisturbed, and immortal; and we know that the ordinances imposed by reason of the hardness of your people’s hearts, contribute nothing to the performance of righteousness and of piety.” Dialogue with Trypho Chapter XLVI

Irenaeus circa 175 CE echos the same thought that the Mosaic Law did not afford justification.

  1. The laws of bondage [from Moses], however, were one by one promulgated to the people by Moses, suited for their instruction or for their punishment, as Moses himself declared: “And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments.”4002 These things, therefore, which were given for bondage, and for a sign to them, He cancelled by the new covenant of liberty. Against Heresies Book IV Chapter XVI Paragraph 5

Tertullian circa 200 CE will make the same argument that the Law has passed, which means it cannot be necessary for justification.

Christ marks the period of the separation when He says, “The law and the prophets were until John”5239—thus making the Baptist the limit between the two dispensations of the old things then terminating—and the new things then beginning, the apostle cannot of course do otherwise, (coming as he does) in Christ, who was revealed after John, than invalidate “the old things” and confirm “the new,” and yet promote thereby the faith of no other god than the Creator, at whose instance5240 it was foretold that the ancient things should pass away. Therefore both the abrogation of the law and the establishment of the gospel help my argument even in this epistle, wherein they both have reference to the fond assumption of the Galatians, which led them to suppose that faith in Christ (the Creator’s Christ, of course) was obligatory, but without annulling the law, because it still appeared to them a thing incredible that the law should be set aside by its own author. Against Marcion Book V Chapter II

So, to answer the OP, yes, the early church fathers believed the Law of Moses could never justify.

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  • Your quotes says the opposite. God cancelled the law. (became invalid, not was always invalid). Law (was working) until Christ. (not a lie or useless) as Galatians says.
    – Michael16
    Jan 14, 2023 at 3:33
  • @Michael16 not really. Mosaic ordinances contribute nothing (quote 1). things given for bondage (quote 2). ancient things pass away (of no effect) (quote 3). Had they believed the Law was able to justify, there would be no room for the New in Christ. The law was always invalid for eternal salvation in Christ.
    – SLM
    Jan 14, 2023 at 18:35
  • None of them indicate anything about being always invalid, even Chrysostom quote that I showed.
    – Michael16
    Jan 15, 2023 at 3:42

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